Chapter 8 - 1918: Helen
“What are you smiling about?”
Her mother’s words came to her as Helen brought a tray into the sitting room. Her mother perched in one of the armchairs near the window. Her reading glasses and knitting sat to the side, forgotten. A quick glance at the half-finished muffler told Helen her mother hadn’t worked on the project today.
Helen set the tray on the end table, poured a cup of tea, and added a bit of cream and two cubes of sugar—just the way her mother liked it. She stirred the mixture and handed the cup and saucer to her mother.
Helen took a seat on the edge of the sofa and poured herself a cup. After the lovely concoction at Ethel’s, the tea at home tasted bitter. She made a face and set the tea aside.
“I was at Ethel’s Teahouse, Mother. Perhaps I ought to take you sometime?”
“Ethel’s? Why on earth were you there? You do realize that old biddy’s prices are too steep?”
Helen frowned. “I thought it might be nice for you to get out of the house.”
Her mother picked up a handkerchief and coughed into it. It sounded wet. A series of coughs erupted, and Helen looked on as her mother struggled. When the fit subsided, Helen’s mother shook her head and wiped at the tears in her eyes.
“Do I look fit to be leaving the house anytime soon, Helen? You know I am not well.”
“I hate seeing you like this, Mother.” A lie if I ever said one. Maybe you should just die already, and I can stop this charade. Helen shook her head, trying to reconcile these thoughts with the uplifting effect Matilda had on her.
“Then perhaps you ought to go into the kitchen and get dinner started. You know it won’t go over well with your father if he returns and finds the meal isn’t ready.”
“He’ll live. Father isn’t starving.” Helen stood, the crease between her eyebrows identical to her mother when she was irate. “In addition to padding his stomach with your portions, he’s padding his pockets with the church’s offerings.”
“Excuse me, young lady?”
“You heard me, Mother. Don’t deny it.”
Her mother’s face reddened. “If I were well, I’d slap you for such insolence.” She shifted in her seat, as if to stand, then fell back into the cushions and began coughing.
Helen stepped toward her, then held back. She stared, her face impassive.
When the coughing subsided, her mother glared. “Get into the kitchen. I don’t want to see you.”
Helen grunted and obeyed. As she chopped vegetables, her thoughts spun.
Who needs this life? I try to care, I really do. I try to help, but for what? To be unappreciated, unloved, and used by that...that horrible monster called my father? To have a mother without a spine?
“Ow,” she hissed. She dropped the knife and sucked on the tip of her thumb. The copper tang of blood assaulted her mouth. Her eyes traveled to the knife, to the blood on the blade.
What if that wasn’t my blood?
She withdrew her thumb from her mouth and wrapped it, shaking her head.
For how happy she had been an hour ago, Helen’s reality was a shadow in a mirror compared to Matilda’s life.
“What’s going on in there?” her mother called.
“Nothing. I just...cut myself.”
Her mother fell silent. With a sigh, Helen resumed making dinner. She added the vegetables to a large pot. Helen waited for the water to boil, wiped down the table and set it. The bowl where her mother used to sit would not be used, if tonight was anything like most nights.
Helen was ladling soup into bowls when the clock struck the hour and the back door opened. Her father stood before her, rigid and tall in his dark clothes. She took his hat and briefcase like her mother used to and put them in the wardrobe near the front door. A glance in her mother’s direction showed she was asleep.
When she entered the kitchen, her father had taken a seat at the head of the table.
“Good evening, Father.”
“What is this?” He nodded toward the soup.
“It’s vegetable soup.”
He ripped a piece of bread from the loaf and dipped it in the soup. “Tastes bland. Your mother made it better.”
“I’m still learning. It’s the best I could do.”
“I don’t wish to hear your excuses, Daughter. Sit down. We will pray and eat. I don’t suppose your mother will join us?”
Pastor Hawkins scowled at the doorway to the other room. “Very well.” He folded his hands, bowed his head, and uttered a prayer.
Helen followed suit, but she peeked at her father’s head and tried not to smirk at the amount of grey that now peppered his once-black hair. Almost as soon as he started the prayer, it ended, and her father opened his eyes. His gaze met hers. His downturned mouth frowned deeper.
“Were you not praying?” His voice was deathly calm.
“I was just--” Thinking how old you’re getting.
“Just what?” A vein twitched in his neck, just above his clerical collar.
Before Helen could answer, her father stood, the chair clattering to the floor. He was upon her in an instant, his hand raised above her.
She darted out of the way, her chair falling on its side. She ran into the sitting room and right at her mother.
Shaking her mother, Helen cried, “Just once, get up and stand up to him! For me, Mother.”
But her mother’s frail form slumped forward like a rag doll. Helen released her and stepped back, her mouth agape. “Mother?”
Her father’s thundering footsteps entered the room. He made to swipe at his daughter, but when his eyes fell on his wife, he halted, nearly toppling over.
“Mary?” His voice was a whisper.
Helen’s heart hammered in her chest, thudding up into her head. She whisked her gaze from her mother to her father.
Her father’s shoulders slouched as if someone had punched him. He staggered toward his wife and knelt in front of her, holding her face up with each of his hands, a gesture so uncharacteristically gentle for him, Helen thought she was dreaming .
“Mary?” he asked again.
Her mother didn’t move.
Her father’s arms fell to his sides. For what could have been hours, Helen stared at his quivering back. She thought she ought to return to the kitchen, exit through the back door, but the impossibility of the scene rooted her to the spot.
Her father sobbed! The muffled sounds coming from him barely met her ears, but Helen stared with disbelief at the man who made her life hell.]
When she came to her senses, Helen took a step toward the kitchen.
Her father chose the same moment to stand and turn. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Helen moved her mouth, but nothing came out.
Her father advanced on her like a wolf going for its kill. He struck her in the jaw, then grabbed her wrist and yanked toward the stairs. All the way across the sitting room, Helen fought. She pulled in the opposite direction, ; her cries bouncing back at her in the darkened room. Heavy curtains blocked the windows.
“What are you doing?” Helen asked, tears coursing down her cheeks.
“But she’s dead!”
“I said, shut up!”
Helen screwed her eyes shut, trying to allow the new reality to settle in. Her mother had taken her last breath, the only witness to her father’s atrocities. Not that it matters. She never tried to stop him.
Hot anger spiked in Helen. As they passed her mother’s body, Helen stopped trying to escape and instead kicked at her mother. Her foot contacted her mother’s shin. The impact was enough to topple her mother to the side, and she flopped to the floor.
“No!” Her father released her.
Helen stepped back, regained her balance, and ran for the kitchen, not looking back. She dashed out the back door and made for the woods.
The sun beat down on her until she reached the edge of the forest. As she made her way deeper into the sanctuary of trees, the shade embraced her. She slowed her pace until she was walking, then stopped and dropped to the forest floor. She lay on her back, staring at the branches far above. The sunlight filtered through in spots, but the lush green blocked most of the sky. The humid air pressed against her. Her vision blurred as tears filled her eyes. She closed them, tried to become Matilda —beautiful, kind Matilda with her beautiful, kind life.
When she opened her eyes, she was still lying on the forest floor.
She pushed herself to a sitting position and pounded her fists into the earth. The soft ground gave way, bits of dirt flinging into the air. She continued to beat the ground as dirt pelted her face and mixed with her tears.
“Why? Why? Why?” she asked. “Why?!”
She squeezed her eyes shut, the sting from the mud too much. Darkness hugged her. She saw her mother, but she was still dead. And yet…
Her mother now sprawled on the sofa, her feet up, and had a blanket over her. Only her head was exposed.
“What?” Helen asked, but the voice that came out wasn’t hers.
With a gasp, she looked at her father’s hands.
“I did it.” Wondrous giddiness mixed with brokenness.
But it wasn’t her brokenness. Like a shard stabbing the heart, the last remnant of a shattered whiskey bottle drank by a desperate man, his misery bled out.
“What is this feeling?” she asked in her father’s voice.
She stared at her mother a moment longer and walked to the mirror over the fireplace mantel. The loathsome face that haunted her day and night gazed back, yet it wasn’t his face, not entirely. His sharp eyes were softened, whether because of his grief over losing his wife or because Helen inhabited his body, she didn’t know. She placed his hand--her hand?--over his chest and felt his beating heart.
“I wouldn’t have believed you had a heart, Father.” A tear escaped. She brought her hand to his cheek and touched it, shaking her head.
Hers. His. Her mind tangled. The realization that this wretched man could love hit her with a rush of memories: her parents’ wedding day, the first time her father kissed her mother, his joy upon becoming a father, and then…
He wrapped his arm around Mary and allowed her to sob into the crook of his neck. His eyes fell on the cradle in the darkened corner of their bedroom. He could pretend the lump of blankets inside it was just that, but he knew. He knew what the blankets tried to hide, but he couldn’t hide the truth blaring in his mind.
“Why?” Mary asked. “Why did our little boy have to die, William?”
“Shh.” He smoothed down her hair and kissed the top of her head. “I have no good answer, but we know the Lord works in mysterious ways. His ways are not our ways.”
She stiffened in his arms and withdrew enough to look at him. “How can you be so calm? Do you think God intends children to die? Is that what you’re saying?”
He pulled away. “I was merely trying to offer comfort. I do not pretend to understand how God operates, only that we might find comfort in knowing that Grace is home with her Lord. It’s a terrible loss, but there will be...other children.” His tongue stopped up his throat.
Another son, perhaps. The thought snuck into his mind like a thief in the night. He knew better than to voice his hope in that moment, however. Knew better than to give voice to his fear that festered doubt, a sin gnawing at his heart: Does God even care that my child has died? Is there really a God, and if there is, why does He allow such terrible things to happen? He shook his head. But I’m supposed to be a man of faith, a man others look to for guidance when it comes to God. I can’t… He squeezed his eyes shut and tamped down his doubts. No, I must believe. Or at least...act like I do...until maybe I do believe...again.
Mary drew away. Fresh tears streamed down her red cheeks as she went for the cradle. She picked up the bundle and held it to her chest like a shield. “How can you say that? Our son is dead, and in case you’ve forgotten, we still have a child. Helen is in the other room, asleep.”
Bitter resentment coursed through him as he stood. He hardened his face and his heart and left without a word.
Helen returned to the present and focused on her father’s reflection.
“I have your memories, your feelings, even thoughts from those memories… I can understand you? Even you, Father?”
She shook her head, the whole ordeal making her mind spin.
“Your brokenness broke you,” she whispered, the memory replaying. “Even with this knowledge, I don’t suppose I’ll ever really understand you.”
She lifted her hand into a fist and slammed it into the mirror. Tiny shards of glass embedded themselves in her skin. Blood trailed down her hand and stained the edge of her white sleeve. Her breathing heavy, when she dared look at her reflection, her father’s face was twisted beyond recognition, uglier than she had ever seen it. She pulled her gaze away from the mirror.
And what of her father’s mind? It was in the forest in her body.
The realization that she now occupied another’s body longer than a few seconds and while awake struck her. The brief exhilaration wore off, replaced by fear that penetrated to the core.
“What now?” she asked, staring at her mother.
Helen paced, the floorboards protesting under her father’s feet. After a while, she grew tired. She had plans to see Matilda in the morning, and how would she do that now? Show up in her father’s body and ask to take a walk with her?
Helen laughed. “That would be quite the scene,” she muttered, shaking her head. “But if I can get into his body, surely I’ll go back to my own. I always have before. I need...I need to learn to control this ability if it’s to be of any use.”
She dropped into the armchair, keeping her gaze on the curtains as she tried to think how she could reverse the process. She had been thinking about her mother one moment, and now she was with her mother. Was there some connection?
But how many times have I longed to escape and be someone else, yet my wish hasn’t been granted? Why does it sometimes work, but only without my conscious effort? Except this time...
Helen knew she had to shut her eyes. She closed them and pictured the woods, felt the gentle breeze on her cheeks playing with her hair, smelled the wet earth, heard the birdsong and the rustle of leaves, tasted the bitter aftertaste of dinner. She remembered what it was to be in her body, to be young, to be agile. She focused every thought on being her, on being and becoming Helen Hawkins.
The air shifted around her in the blackness. Her body seemed to shrink and grow lighter. The sounds morphed from the drip of the kitchen faucet to a soft wind. The cushions underneath her transformed into grass that tickled the back of her neck and wrists.
Helen opened her eyes. She was back in the forest.
She sat up, then stood and spun slowly, taking in all that surrounded her like it was a new creation. Her childlike smile died as a sinister one made its home on her face.
Helen returned to the house with her head held high, fear conquered. When she came to the edge of the property, she took in the place of her childhood nightmares. She took a step, then another, toward the front door. She stopped on the porch, her hand hovering over the knob. She grasped it and turned. The door creaked like old bones and opened to stillness. She waited in expectation, but no sound came.
She entered. Her mother’s body lay on the couch as it had earlier, eyes closed and face impassive, as if in sleep. She took no further notice of the body, just as her mother had taken no notice of her.
Her father’s coat and hat hung in the half-opened wardrobe near the front door, so he likely hadn’t left.
She checked the kitchen and found no sign of him. Her eyes drifted to the knife on the counter she had used to prepare dinner. Her hand clutched it, as it of its own volition.
“Upstairs, then,” she whispered.
Knife held in front of her, she took the steps with deliberation. Every footstep, every shift of the old wood under her feet, let them be a warning bell tolling her father’s doom. The knife nearly slipped from her sweaty grip when she reached the landing.
The door to her parents’ room was open a crack. Helen made her way down the hall, the ticking of the wall clock tapping away the seconds like her beating heart. She stood on the edge of a cliff, waiting to jump. She halted outside the door and peered in.
Her father knelt at the side of the bed, head bowed. He murmured a prayer, Helen supposed, but his bloody hands locked and unlocked on the quilt.
When she entered, he straightened. “So, you’ve decided to come back and haunt me.”
Helen raised the knife over his back. Her hands trembled, then in one motion, she slashed across his upper back. She stepped back and watched in shock and fascination as he buckled forward. Her father’s head hit the floor with a thud, and he rolled onto his side. He curled into a fetal position, shaking and groaning. Blood surrounded the frayed fabric on his back, but the cut wasn’t deep enough for it to pool.
“You are a demon,” he managed to croak.
Helen stepped back as if struck by his words. She took the knife in one hand, grabbed her braid in the other, brought the blade to the base of her neck, and severed the braid. The knife clattered to the floor. The braid landed with a thud. Short hair fell around Helen’s face.
“Look at me, Father.”
His eyes met hers.
Helen was sure she saw real fear in them. “Do I look like a boy now? Can I be the son you always wanted instead of the daughter you hated?” Spittle flew from her mouth. She bared her teeth like a rabid dog and jumped at her father.
He shielded his face from her attack. She pinned his wrists above his head and leaned in close, her breath hot on his face.
“You deserve to die,” Helen said.
“Then why don’t you do it?”
“Because I’d rather have you live your days afraid of me, afraid like I feared you all those years. I’ve been inside your head, Father, and I know your fear firsthand. You won’t talk about this, any of this. Your holy reputation defiled, your flimsy belief in a false god, your perversions on display for everyone to see?” Helen shook her head. “No, I don’t think you will take the risk.”
Her father stared at her, then narrowed his eyes. “You really are a demon.”
Helen spat in his face.
He twisted his face and tried to wipe it away, but Helen kept her hold on him. She leveled her knee over his groin and forced herself close. She smiled and whispered in his ear, “Isn’t this what you want?” She licked his lobe, then bit down hard.
He cried out as blood leaked out from the bite. “What do you want?” His voice shook.
Helen jabbed with her knee.
He yelped. Tears formed in his eyes. One escaped before he could absorb it with the back of his hand.
“I want you to feel everything I’ve felt, Father, all these years.”
“And what if I speak? What if I tell your secret, Daughter? What then?”
“And who would believe you?” Helen laughed.
Her father fell silent and closed his eyes, turning his face away.
Helen curled her lips, a half-smile, a half-jeer. She removed herself from her father and stood, picking up the knife. She watched as he remained on the floor, unmoving as his dead wife a floor below. She studied the blade, ran it over her hand, feeling the smoothness. Flesh was so supple, so easy to penetrate, so yielding.
Her father’s eyes caught the glint of the knife in her deft hands. “Have you decided to kill me, then?”
“Not at this moment.” Helen went to her room. But I always finish what I start.
She had nothing to fear from the man down the hall. He would deal with his deceased wife and return to work tomorrow as if nothing happened. Helen was as certain of this as her own thoughts. She took a seat at her vanity and ran her hands through her shorn hair. The longest hair grazed her shoulders. She shrugged, then went downstairs where her mother kept her sewing things and found a sharp pair of scissors. Helen returned to her room and tidied up her hair as best as she could, evening it out. Some of the hair was shorter, layered, but most of it hung to her chin. She smiled at her new look. It was a bob, the new hairstyle she glimpsed in magazines in the general store, the type of style worn by celebrities and models in places like New York City and Paris.
“Now, if only I didn’t have such drab clothes.” She frowned at her simple clothing. Most of her blouses and skirts had belonged to her mother. The ruffles on the front of her once-white blouse were ragged. Her heavy, dark grey skirt brushed the floor.
“Well, one change at a time. I wonder what Matilda will think of my new look?” But even as the words left her mouth, she knew.
A recent memory surfaced of one of her visits to Matilda’s head. Matilda had been in her room, looking at one of those fashion magazines. Her family was wealthy, and the other young woman wore new dresses all the time. Matilda’s parents, Helen knew, weren’t too keen on the latest fashion trend.
Helen listened for her father. A little while later, his footsteps came down the hall, then the steps. He left the house, likely to alert the proper authorities to come collect his wife’s body.
“What’s done is done. You’re gone, Mother. You are about as much help to me in death as you were in life. Maybe if you had taken me with you, had left him, things would have turned out differently.”
She considered going downstairs to gaze upon her mother one last time but decided against it. She lost herself in staring out the window at the setting sun. As darkness claimed most of the sky, a door below opened. Her father’s and another man’s voices came muffled through the floorboards.
A few more footsteps entered the house. Helen supposed the coroner was here with his men to take her mother away. She thought she heard someone give his apology for the pastor’s loss, especially since he was a man of God. Helen snorted in derision.
“If you knew the truth about my father, you would think otherwise.”
The footsteps retreated. The front door closed, and the house fell silent.
Her father’s footsteps moved around the sitting room. It sounded like he was opening a cabinet. Helen listened for further movement, for him to speak, but nothing came. Then a glass shattered, causing her to jump. She laughed.
Her father swore and came up the stairs, walked past her closed door, and slammed his door.
Still Helen waited. Slumber eluded her, but she wasn’t interested in sleeping anyway.
When the hour grew late and she was certain her father was asleep, Helen left her room and crept down the hall to where he slumbered. She peeked in through a crack in the door. Moonlight settled on his face from the parting in the drapes. His brow furrowed, and his mouth moved as if in pain. She grinned.
“I hope you’re having unpleasant dreams, Father. The nightmare will be here waiting for you when you wake.”
She went downstairs to survey the damage from her father’s tirade. She lit the lamp next to the sofa. An empty whiskey bottle sat open on the table below the liquor cabinet. The remains of his glass were evidence of his outburst, shattered on the floor between the sofa and the cabinet.
Her father rarely drank. He kept the liquor for the occasional guest who wasn’t calling on him as a pastor. Of all his evils, Helen couldn’t accuse him of being a drunk.
It would almost excuse his abhorrent behavior if he were.
Shaking her head, she considered leaving.
Leaving would be admitting defeat. He needs to know I’m in charge from now on.
“No, I’m staying right here, Father.”
Helen went up to bed and allowed sleep to claim her. In her dreams, she didn’t become anyone else.