Chapter 14: Cleaning

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When my alarm buzzed Nick was gone.  By some miracle I had been given the luxury of a dreamless sleep.  Despite being well rested I dressed unenthusiastically, keeping one eye on the mirror in case he decided to appear.  The outfit I had chosen was the closest to the bed.  It was an internal struggle for me to make myself leave the room long enough to change.  If I missed him I would never forgive myself. 

Before I left, I stared at my reflection for too long.  When he did not show up, I made myself go down for breakfast.  If I wasn’t careful, Nick Dalton was going to become an unhealthy obsession.  The last thing I needed was to fixate on someone who was the very definition of unattainable.

My way to the kitchen was impeded by a tower of brown cardboard boxes.  The empty cubes were stacked outside the first bedroom on the right, the master suite.  Megan and Rosa came into view, carrying more empty containers.  My maid sat her burden down and left Rosa and I alone to talk.

“Miss Callista,” Rosa said quietly.  “It is time.”  She didn’t need to supply any more details; I had been subconsciously aware of the task she was referring to since I had arrived in England.

“I don’t think I can do it today.” Or any other day.

“It is time,” she repeated.

“But…” 

“You need to put this behind you.”

“Let the girls do it.” 

She shook her head.  “This is something that you need to do, Miss Callista.”

Rosa was right.  I had put off the task for long enough and needed to move past it.  My hunger subsided—all feelings had dissipated—so I headed straight for my mother’s room.

“Do you want me to help you?  We could get it done in half the time if there are two of us working,” she said from behind me.

“No, thank you, Rosa.  I need to deal with this by myself.”  If I had a nervous breakdown I wanted no witnesses to the event.

“I will be downstairs if you need me.”

The master suite was the largest of the bedrooms at Barnard Hall.  The quilt covering the four-poster bed was a soft cream that matched the bold swirls on the patterned wallpaper.  The atmosphere in the room was worse than lonely; it was lifeless. 

The room smelled like her, like my mother.  Her perfume still lingered in the now-stale air, lacing the space with femininity.  The adjoining bathroom was cluttered with makeup, shampoo, and other cosmetic items.  Her personal products were left waiting for her to return, ready to make her beautiful again.  Sylvia Franklyn Burns had left that day, thinking it would be no different than any other day.  She had not known that she would never return to Barnard Hall. 

I attempted to distance myself from the task at hand.  The project would be finished soon enough, and I would be able to leave the room to collect dust.  It was important to fill each box and not think about what I was giving away or why it was no longer needed.  Out of foolish sentiment I allowed myself one box for jewelry and other personal affects I wanted to keep.  Rosa could decide the fate of everything else. 

Two hours later, I had miraculously completed the bulk of the work.  All but one drawer of clothes were in boxes, ready to leave Barnard Hall.  I pulled the decorative metal knob and the drawer jerked open.  The dresser had belonged to Jim; keeping a mental distance was effortless.  I had never been more removed from another human being as I was from my stepfather.  His sweaters filling the space made my stomach roll.  I threw the garments into the box as quickly as possible in case they spontaneously combusted in my hands. 

Just as I was about to shut the drawer, light glinted off of something shiny near the back.  My fingers grasped the thin key; the metal’s cool weight sent a current zinging through my hand.  I knew the exact lock the key would fit into. 

The drawer remained open, forgotten as I ran to my old bedroom.  I raised my hand to the door and closed my eyes.  In my mind’s eye I remembered how it had looked ten years earlier—my private sanctuary, a child’s escape.  With the bed shoved to the corner, the spacious room had been mostly bare.  The area had allowed for more games contrived by the imaginations of two little girls. 

My hand shook as I put the key into the lock.  I inhaled a steadying breath, composed my face into an impassive mask, and turned the key.  With a bit of force the mechanism clicked, admitting me into my bedroom.  Musty air drifted around my body like a heavy fog and assaulted my senses with memories.  The cloying atmosphere seeped through the open doorway and penetrated my soul as it crept past. 

For months I had played here with my best friend.  I had dreamed of the place for the last ten years and yet what was left of my bedroom reflected the nightmare.  Those ten minutes of terror in my final hour at Barnard Hall would forever taint the space. 

Distorted shadows claimed the walls, snarling at me as I stepped inside.  The windows were shuttered by thick curtains, allowing only slivers of light to filter through the crack in the center.  My old room was covered in a film of dust from disuse, and cobwebs clung to the eaves.  The unmade bed glittered with shards of glass from the broken mirror in the corner.  I took a second step into the space and crunched some forgotten remains beneath my shoe. 

The mirror itself looked like something out of a horror movie.  The edges of the glass were still there, jagged and slicing at the thick air.  A large hole was missing from the heart of the piece.  The menacing, razor-like edges were stained black with my stepfather’s blood. 

My cheeks grew damp as I drank in what was left of my childhood.  This couldn’t be the last memory I had in my old room.  This was a place for possibilities and dreams, not the set of a Stephen King film.

I ran to the curtains and flung them open, allowing the white sunlight to coat the pale walls.  The glass on my bed glittered like a million diamonds.  I pulled the small iron-handled broom from its stand beside the fireplace and fell to my knees to sweep away the precious jewels.  When there was a small pile, I dropped the glass into the ash bucket.  Next, I pulled the covers from the bed and rolled them into a ball, careful to collect the diamonds in the middle and keep the sharp edges from cutting my soul.

With all my strength, I heaved the heavy mirror frame to the edge of the room with the other trash.  The vines carved into the metal branded my hand, leaving an imprint of the design on my palm. 

As I surveyed my handy work, pride filled some of the void that had been created ten years earlier; I had completed two of the tasks I had been dreading since I had returned to Barnard Hall.

As I turned to leave, a dainty white hand reached toward me from beneath the bed.  I picked up Tilly’s favorite doll, and brushed the reflective glass from her dark curls.  Her porcelain skin was still smooth and her serene smile remained in place.  I sat her proudly against the feather pillow atop my blank bed, where she belonged.

My former sanctuary was now an empty space; empty of dreams but also free of nightmares.  The room was ready for someone else.  I wasn’t sad when I left the room.  I’d found what I had been craving all these years: closure.

“Haven’t you seen her?”

I waited at the top of the steps when I heard Beth’s voice in the hallway below.  Something about the way she whispered kept me from revealing my presence.  The maid beside her, Amanda, shrugged. 

Beth scoffed.  “She’s happy.  Her parents were killed only weeks ago and she walks around here with a constant smile on her face.”  The hatred in her voice made me bristle.  I had never done anything to this girl to deserve her vicious slander.  My apparent happiness was no one’s business.  If anything, she should be happy that I was happy.  The longer I was happy, the longer I would stay here.  And, the longer I stayed here, the longer she had a job.

Wait.  Was I happy?  There really were no words to describe how I had been feeling of late.  I was interested in life—more interested than I had ever been.  But I wouldn’t use the word happy.  How could I be happy when I knew how this story ended?

“You can’t expect a person to mourn the dead forever,” Amanda said.  The girl’s face was on the homely side, but her kindness shined through.  I would have to give her a raise in her next paycheck as a reward for her sympathy.

“But that’s just it.  She never mourned at all.  She didn’t even cry at the funeral.”

“Maybe she mourned in private.”

“Regardless, I’ve heard she’s mad.”

“How can you know that?” Amanda asked in a hushed whisper, looking around her for eavesdroppers.  I stepped back, becoming one with the shadows.  Both Amanda and I waited for Beth’s response.

“Her stepfather made sure her aunt put her in therapy after she left Barnard Hall.  He had thought she was possessed.  She saw people who weren’t there and all sorts of eerie things.  That’s why they kept her away all those years.”

Amanda took a minute to process the malicious details.  “I had not heard that before.” 

It hurt more than I would ever admit that Jim had shared such personal information with strangers.  A lot of other children had imaginary friends, how was I any different?  That thought made me chuckle.  My situation had been very different; my imaginary friend had been real, only she had died in 1912.

“Haven’t you walked by her room in the evenings?  She’s in there talking to herself, holding full conversations.”

“Well, what does she say?  I talk to myself sometimes too but I don’t expect to be committed anytime soon.”

Beth must have overheard me talking to Nick.  Getting caught wasn’t something I had previously considered; as a rule, my staff gave me a wide berth.  Having someone discover Nick could only end in tragedy.  If I was smart I would change rooms and stop seeing him.  But I knew that wouldn’t happen.  No matter how much time I spent with him, I would crave more until the end. 

“I don’t know.  The doors in this house are thick, but these conversations are more than just thinking aloud.  I’m sure of it.”

Amanda straightened.  “So what if she’s a bit mad?  Barnard Hall has had that effect on some others through the years.  You’ve heard the stories, same as me.  Even I sometimes think I see things when I clean the bedrooms.  Old homes hold ghosts.  Miss Franklyn is a good employer.  She has no need for a most of the staff, yet she keeps us on.  For that, I am in her debt—crazy or not.” 

I would have to get to know Amanda better.  She seemed to be a worthy ally in a place where allies were scarce. 

The fury on Beth’s face left me smiling.  Anger radiated from her body; I could taste the bitterness in the air.  Stepping out of the shadows, I resumed descending the stairs.  On the outside I remained calm but inside I was boiling over.  It would do no good to provide the entire community with more gossip about me.  It was obvious that Beth had been a main source of the rumors, and I had to stop them from growing more vicious.

My maid saw me come around the corner and she stiffened, wondering if I had overheard her conversation.  I smiled to set her at ease; she visibly relaxed.

“Beth, may I have a word with you?”  I said with a friendliness I did not feel.

She moved a step closer and offered me a tentative smile; the look did not reach her eyes.

“I just wanted to remind you that your place here at Barnard Hall is in no way set in stone.  I would appreciate it if you kept your personal opinions to yourself and remained professional while you’re on the clock.”

“Miss Franklyn, I assure you I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“And I can assure you that you are lying.”

There was something cold about Beth’s eyes that I had not noticed before.  They were not like my mother’s; Sylvia’s green eyes had been lifeless.  Beth’s were cold and sharp, like switchblades.  At that moment I knew Beth would like nothing more than to slap me… or worse.

Instead of letting loose with her true feelings, Beth nodded stiffly and turned on her heel.  The fury emanating from her was electrifying.  I inhaled deeply and took the long route to my room in order to shake off the confrontation.

“What happened to you?”

I looked at the gorgeous man in the mirror and his words got lost in my muddled brain.  The concern on his face was foreign to me; when was the last time someone was worried about me?  “What do you mean?”

“Callista, you are bleeding—and quite profusely at that.”

“What?”  Sure enough, the broken glass from the mirror had cut my knees and hands.  If my staff hadn’t thought I was nuts before, they would now.  How could I have let Beth see me in such a state?  The next thing the village would hear was that I had turned suicidal. 

Tiny specks of glass had been embedded in my palms.  With the acknowledgement of their existence, the tiny scrapes ignited and began to burn my tender skin. 

“Huh,” was all I could manage.  Each slice felt like it had its own heartbeat; the throbbing was unbearable.

“What were you doing all day that would inflict such wounds?” Nick asked, curious about my battle scars.

“Cleaning.”

“Cleaning what?  A war zone?”

“My old bedroom and my mother’s room,” I confessed.

“Why were you doing it?”

“Because it needed done.”  Why else would someone clean?  It wasn’t exactly the type of task people enjoyed.

“I meant, don’t you have a household staff for that sort of chore?”

“Yes.”

“So why were you doing it?”

When my eyes made contact with Nick’s, I forgot to breathe.  He was sitting in his chair, looking beautiful in a tailored white shirt and black pants.  He had shaved and looked more rested than he had the entirety of the past week.  His dark eyes pulled the truth from my lips.

“Because I had to get rid of my mother’s clothes,” I confessed, knowing what he would ask next. 

“Why?”

“Because she and her husband died a few weeks ago, and I needed to get rid of their personal things.  I spent most of the morning boxing up clothes.”

For a moment he didn’t respond.  I wasn’t sure he had heard me but then he whispered, “I am so sorry for your loss.”

I shrugged away the sentiment.  I had been sorry too—ten years ago.

“Why had you not told me this before?”

“It never came up.”

“If I may make an observation without offending you,” Nick began as I walked into the bathroom to clean and disinfect my cuts.  He did not wait for my permission to continue.  “You seem to be handling the situation quite well for losing your mother.”

“It’s complicated,” I hedged, unprepared to relate the details of the trauma that had made up my childhood. 

“Too complicated to share?”

Too complicated to face.  “For now.”

Nick nodded.  “Did you cut yourself on the clothes or with a broom?”

“Neither.  I had to clean the glass from my old bedroom.”

“Glass?”

“From the broken mirror.”

“Too complicated?” he predicted.

“Not really.  My stepfather saw Tilly ten years ago and broke the mirror as a result.”

Nick smiled and my heart broke.  “I cannot say I am surprised.  My sister tends to have that sort of damaging effect on people.”           

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