By Kat Devitt
I sat staring at the hands, frozen in their rotation, their ticking not filling the room. I waited another second to see if a spring might force it to leap forward. Just once. Just to prove life still grinded through the cogs in the ormolu clock, tick, tick, ticking away.
But nothing happened.
Someone was dead.
Sunlight poured through the window, illuminating the stillness, as I counted the seconds in silence. I collected time as someone might ribbons or fobs, tucking it away for another day.
I became numb with each rising number. One, two, three, four…
They trickled from my thoughts, in succession, as I waited with dread’s head resting on my shoulder. A death omen held those hands in suspension, taking one of my family or friends away in a single strike. It was a superstition of old, but one I believed in wholeheartedly.
A shiver ran through the rod of my spine, as sudden as lightning. I could see it. A corpse with glazed eyes. Someone I loved. Someone I knew. Dead before I could even say goodbye.
Tears filled my eyes at the suddenness of this thought, this image, lodged within me. It had become a part of my mind, like a disease. It lived within me, growing, spreading, all within a matter of seconds. And I was helpless to do anything about it.
Now I counted my fears, not time. Father, Lydia, Alice, Patrick… Who might be dead?
Father was all I had left in this world, aside from a few friends. My mother had died years ago from consumption, leaving me to cry for her everyday, wanting the warmth of her hands in mine. Wanting to stand beside her, to simply wrap my arms around her. But I couldn’t hug a corpse, and Father couldn’t be married to one.
He never took another wife, taking vigil by their bedside each night, talking to her as if she was still there. He copied the Queen in wearing all black, never breaking from his mourning. His love for my mother remained strong, even as her image faded from memory. But it was the residue emotions she left in his heart, as fresh as morning dew, that kept him faithful to her.
I was their only child when Mother died, so I had no siblings to worry about. I hadn’t a sister’s hair to braid, or a brother to scold for climbing too high into a tree. I filled my days with two friends, Lydia and Alice, and together, we formed our own trio.
I likened us to the loyal band of three in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, our favorite serialized novel. We devoured these serials in church, sitting in the pew furthest from the pulpit, the pastor’s sermons rolling over us as we read our copies. We even had the letters “TM” monogrammed into our handkerchiefs.
And there was Patrick. Beautiful, beautiful Patrick.
His outward appearance fooled the eye. He stood shorter than most men, his hands raw and callused from days spent tilling farmland. He was scruffy and woolly, not the most attractive to look upon, as brown hair jutted from his nostrils and ears. But he had a handful of beard I liked to tickle when he wasn’t paying me attention, and he’d turn to give me a cross stare when I teased him so, a crooked smile betraying his humor.
He was beautiful in who he was and how he treated others. He carried himself with humility, always ready to offer his help when the pastor needed the church’s leaky roof fixed, when his mother needed help carrying her shopping home. My heart grew to love him with each small kindness he gave, not just to me, but to those around him.
I never told him I loved him, I thought. And I knew, right there, I had a regret I’d always carry. I rarely told any of them–Father, Lydia and Alice, Patrick–how dearly I held onto their love, their friendships.
But they were all healthy. They were strong in their breaths, sturdy in their limbs. No sicknesses ran rampant, no ailments plagued their bodies. Each were vigorous enough to last another lifetime, if not more. None of them could be dead. Those hands, those still hands in the clock, had to be lying.
Unless an accident had happened.
This wicked thought galloped into my mind on devil’s hooves, making a thousand fancies flourish. Father slipped and drowned into a lake. Lydia and Alice crushed beneath the weight of the church’s roof. Or Patrick, caught in a storm on his way to call on me.
I glanced outside. No storms darkened the skies. Tufts of green branches clawed at the brick house, scratching against the glass. A swallow sat on one of its fingers, taking flight into the wind.
I wanted to ride away on the back of that bird, taken far away from the burden of loving. But it was love that nourished these fears. Love that made me look into the shadowy corners, looking for Death, but he didn’t lurk about in black robes with a scythe in his hand. He remained invisible to the eye, looming in my thoughts, in my nightmares.
Death didn’t simply appear with all his answers. He unfolded slowly, revealing himself in the hints he left behind. In the clock stopping. In the slowing of my breaths, in the trick that this day continued in peace, like any other.
But his masquerade came to an end when weeping came from another room. It was muffled by the walls, muted by my doubts. I turned back towards the sunshine filtering through the windows, trying to push away the knowledge, the truth–Death was in my home.
A whisper broke through the hush, and died again, disappearing into the walls of the house. Those walls, made from nails and wood, absorbed the sound, but my heart absorbed the terror.
Nothing within me wanted to echo its call, but I forced myself from my perch on the chair, flitting into the wind like a sparrow searching for a home. I strained my ears–and listened. Those tears grew louder as I crossed the parlor, my fears heightening. Had Father received news of a death?
I entered into the other room. I saw Lydia and Alice huddled on a burgundy chaise lounge, their faces buried into handkerchiefs. They shook with weeping, their black silks and taffetas rustling.
“My musketeers. My friends.” I rushed to their sides, my hands shaking. “Why do you cry?”
I waited for someone to peek up over the edge of their lace kerchiefs, streams of salty tears staining her face. But no one offered an answer. I cleared my throat, thinking perhaps I hadn’t been loud enough.
They were blanketed in their grief, hearing nothing under its cover. It cloaked around anyone who entered, their sadness so strong, so overwhelming. It was more of a being, an identity, than an emotion.
I knelt before them, but not touching their dark skirts. I noted the monograms on their handkerchiefs: “TM.” My merry band, my trio, reduced to tears. I shed a few with them, but what for, I knew nothing of their reason. I needed to learn why, so I might comfort my friends, but I feared the answers I might find.
“I’ll come back for you,” I murmured. “I promise.”
Neither acknowledged me. They kept their heads low, their weeping a soft lullaby for the dead in their graves. I reached out to take Lydia’s hand in my own, to give her my warmth, my love. But I took pause from their weeping. I couldn’t seem to break into their lullaby, to meld into their song.
I stood up, staring down at their black silks. I traced the “TM” with my eyes a few times over, branding my mind with those letters. I wanted to keep its imprint with me, wherever I might wander, wherever I might go.
I found the courage to leave the room. It came as a fizzle, like fine champagne, bubbling from my feet to my mind. Idea connected with motion, and I walked past Alice. She shivered and looked up for the first time.
“Is there a draft?” she asked.
Lydia peeked up from her handkerchief, pulling her shawl closer to her. “I think so.”
I paused in the doorway, staring into their red-rimmed eyes, vacant with gloom. A part of myself wanted nothing to do with their tears. I wanted nothing of their melancholy. It’d connect to a larger truth, one I wasn’t prepared to meet. But I needed to try, for their sakes, as their friend.
“I’ll return shortly,” I said.
For a moment, I thought they glanced in my direction, but I didn’t linger long enough to learn if my speculation held truth. I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t keep myself in that room, lingering in their grief. I’d collapse into that being, that identity, so I flew away, not ready to be caught in its wind.
I hurried on into the entrance hall, where Father displayed his modest collection of glass and crystal vases, catching the sunlight, rainbows slashing across the robin egg blue wallpaper. I stepped on a few rainbows, like cobblestones running through my home, as I took pause.
Where might I find Father? I thought.
Distant voices caught my attention. My gaze swung about, searching for their direction. It wasn’t the light, airiness of my friends, but rather the deep timbre of men. I distinguished Father’s raspiness, and another, more fluid, more precise.
I walked into an adjoining room, following the deep muttering like the notes of a dark adagio, leading its listener to the end of its ghastly tale. And when the last note struck, it left a speck of fear on the heart.
This fear trembled within me as I came to a door, slightly ajar, and on the other side I heard the voices. I turned my ear to the crack, straining to catch the conversation, my heartbeat alive in my ears. But oddly, I detected no thumping in my chest.
“You’ve always been so good to her, ” Father said, his voice like wind through the branches of a weeping willow.
Patrick answered. “She’s been the light of so many of my good days.”
“I cannot agree more.” Floorboards creaked. “Since my wife’s passing, Adeline was the only reason I rose in the mornings. She was the blossoming of our love, and I looked on her, each day, as a reminder of what I’d lost, but also gained.”
I gave the door a little shove, the wood creaking on its hinges. It was rusty, like everything in this house. Its joints needed oil to keep it moving, much like my Father, now well past a half century.
“Who goes there?” Father asked.
“It’s me, Papa,” I said as I entered.
He looked past me, not seeing. He stood by an open window, sunlight making his gray whiskers shine silver, his veiny hands tangled into a worried knot. “Who goes there?” he asked again.
“It was only the wind.” Patrick moved behind me, brushing past, closing the door. I swung around to greet him, happiness brimming from my soul, when horror stuck pins into my feet, holding me to the floorboards.
I saw a body laying on a table, spread out for a wake. Patrick, dressed in a dark suit, with an ebony cravat tied around his throat, rejoined the corpse, taking its hand into his own. He stared down at its cold flesh as tears glistened in the corners of his eyes.
“I loved her,” he whispered, “and I never found the chance to tell her.”
I stepped closer, wondering who could deserve Patrick’s affections more than me, and I found my own face. My own likeness, preserved in Death’s slumber. My flesh was pale, dead. Only my golden hair, braided into plaits, seemed to live, shining in the sun, like waves in a hayfield. My arms were folded over my chest, a sunflower interwoven through limp fingers. My favorite flower, left there by my loved ones.
I can’t be dead.
This had to be a cruel nightmare. Any moment now, the clock in the parlor would strike the hour, and I’d wake from my sleep. I would blink away my grogginess, the sunlight warming my skin as I stretched in my chair. I’d smile as Papa entered the room, asking if I was alright. And I would answer, “Yes, Papa. I am well, now that you are here.”
“I’m alive,” I said. “I’m alive. Can’t you see?”
I rushed across the room, towards Patrick, but a glint on the wall caught my attention. I glanced to my left, and I saw an iron-wrought mirror staring at me, as if it also wept for my soul. I looked into its depths, and I couldn’t find myself. My reflection wasn’t there.
I sobbed, but no tears blurred my vision. I hadn’t the body to create even a touch of sadness. Staring into the mirror, finding nothing, I tore myself out of that hell.
I crossed the room to my friend, my sweetheart. “I love you, too,” I whispered, taking Patrick’s hand into mine. I held his flesh, feeling the warmth of his pulse.
His head jerked up. “My hand, it’s cold.”
Father broke away from the window. “She is here with us now. Her soul heard us talking, and she’s here to comfort us from the grave.” Tears slid down his rough cheeks, becoming lost in his beard. “I swear, it’s her.”
I left Patrick and glided over to Papa. I tried to wipe away his tears, to give my comfort, but their rivers remained in the crevices of his wrinkled cheeks. I took his face into my hands, feeling him. Feeling his warmth, his life. “It’s me, Papa. It’s only a dream.”
But this wasn’t true. It sunk deep within me, within the specter I had become. I’d never wake again. I’d never hear the breath of the wind or my father’s call. I’d never see the sun claw its way from darkness or the smiles on Lydia and Alice’s faces. I’d never smell roses again or know the fullest of Patrick’s love.
Father reached out. “Adeline?”
His hand went through me. I couldn’t feel anything.
“Someday you will wake up from this,” I whispered. “Someday, when you join me.”
Off in the distance, a clock struck the hour, and all around me, the world slowly faded into gray. I merged with the air, a sparrow taking flight, from the warmth of the only home I’d loved. And I became nothing, or something else, as a light took me into its glow.
Kat Devitt is a Pushcart Prize nominee with an M.S. in Library and Information Sciences and a B.A. in History. Her work has appeared in TWJ Magazine, Squawk Back, The Blotter Magazine, Fiction on the Web, and other venues.