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The Final Gasp of Winter

Cottage City, 1900

By CJ MillerPublished 11 months ago Updated about a month ago 18 min read
Top Story - April 2023
35

The mirror showed a reflection that wasn't my own. Through the worn silver, as if gazing into a neighboring den of sin, I was able to make out the shape of a woman with spidery fingers, her dress a brown, shabby muslin. Her hair like sullied snow.

She was squatting, looming, her torso bent over the pitiable soul occupying her attention, arms moving with demonic speed, greedily gathering something before forcing it past her hung, wanting jaw.

When she turned towards me—or rather, towards my portal into the macabre—I confirmed the craved substance to be blood. It was everywhere, viscous and red as a candied cherry, making a childlike mess of her palms. Her skirts.

Her chin.

Unable to tear myself away, my eyes scoured this netherworld for clues as to the unwitting donor, he or she a blunt victim of exsanguination. Beneath a pile of rags, I at last spied the contours of a girlish braid: long, auburn, adorned with the green ribbon I'd gifted its wearer for Christmas but a few months prior.

It belonged to my dear Libby. I'd recognize it anywhere.

No! These looping words need be dashed, blotted out most thoroughly. I should not write of such awfulness, should not enshrine evil by way of ink and pressure; nor could I allow it to stay bottled up, a monster without egress.

I pray these visions nevermore darken my inner lintel, though said psyche believes me responsible.

For the transgressions. For what we, as a collective, have done.

May He rid our hearts of malice.

May He keep her, the Wicked, at bay.

•♾️•

I tied the strip of suede around my diary and tucked it beneath the floorboard, replacing the plank so as not to attract interest. Father would be displeased if I were caught chronicling dreams of this variety, thinking them a means of entry to planes we ought not disturb.

The inciting event behind my night terrors was clear enough, and I attempted to console myself by focusing on this guilt. It meant there was a rational cause, an effect that stopped short of the supernatural–my most solemn phobia.

I admit, and candidly so, that as of the evening before, no such regret dwelled inside me. Not a drop from bow to stern.

Libby, however—currently the tender age of seven—is my Achilles' heel. A tragedy starring her in the role of the Sacrificed, imaginal or not, was enough to chasten my lesser self.

Arriving just shy of my sixth birthday, she was a living, squealing doll, a testament to all that is pure and gentle in this existence. What's more, her rosy disposition has held fast as she matures.

Libby would never treat another as I have.

Three winters prior, we were both struck down by scarlet fever. I had begged the Lord to take me, too, if He didn't see fit to let her carry on, for any swath of peace would turn to ash without my sister.

I picked up my looking glass, the very object that had wheedled itself beyond the purview of slumber, causing this consternation. In its foggy surface, I appeared as always: pallid, freckled, plain.

Before I could hone in on my most disagreeable features—Father claims I have a flair for the dramatic—Mother's voice wafted by my door, a breeze having blown it ajar.

"Rebecca!"

A pause, and when I didn't answer, a refrain, the latter more impassioned than the former.

"Rebecca Anne Luce! Get down here this instant! We have a visitor."

At the commotion, Libby poked her head in, a flush dotting her ivory complexion. I swelled at the sight of her, now whole. Safe.

"Becca? They're waiting."

"I heard. Who's here? Need I fret?"

She gave me a crooked smile–an offering of sympathy—before returning to the game she'd been playing, my question left dangling mid-air.

I rose from my perch nearest the bookshelf, a hint peaked but otherwise fine. Had I suspected what was to come, I would've remained among those dusty volumes.

•♾️•

Alighting the staircase's sparse landing, I knew at once whose back was seated before me.

Her.

In our humble parlor was a woman with a no-nonsense bun, a black bonnet, but it was the slope of her shoulders that revealed her identity, so broken they were excruciating to witness.

Father, he who had never uttered a judgmental word in his tenure on this earth, once remarked that it was a toss-up as to who had borne a greater load in life—Atlas in the gleaming flesh or one Esther Francis Mayhew.

He, unlike most, raised the comparison out of concern.

Stripped or energy, I shuffled forward. My heart, already tremulous, did a proper jig when Mother proceeded with her onslaught of conversation.

"Rebecca, Esther has brought you something special. Might you say hello and allow for the pretense that we taught you manners?"

I scraped together my courage.

"Hi, Miss Mayhew."

A cackle, all but inaudible, escaped her as she pivoted to survey me.

There was no warmth to be had.

"I haven't been addressed as Miss in eons," she said, lifting her stare to jail me in it.

I'd been creeping towards the fireplace, but at a glimpse of her arresting irises, any momentum came to a halt. They were rheumy, blank, colorless in the tradition of a running brook; in a way that did not permit for the transmission, nor the reading, of true emotion.

Of intention.

The rest of her was, on the contrary, highly emotive. What I spied in those downward-curling lips—in her crumbling profile, it which belied no hint that she had ever been a lass my age—was unadulterated sadness.

I knew myself to be the source of this sorrow. One of many, as it happens. In the seasons since we began our churlish harassment—petty at first and then, fueled by hubris, brash as yesterday's incident—I had never been called on to acknowledge the aftermath. The suffering.

It reminded me of the inaugural hunting trip I'd taken with my brother, Seth. It was one thing to eat venison prepared under my mother's supervision, herbs and funereal oils rendering the meat enticing.

Entirely another to watch the animated creature, watching me, a gun between us; a blade poised to seal his destiny.

"You dropped this alongside my yard," Esther said, her tone more neutral than her countenance. "I assume it's of personal value."

My necklace. A gift from Grandma Mary, newly departed. Esther released it into my palm, her touch sending a static charge straight through to my elbow.

A fragment of my dream returned then, her visage steeped in congealing ruby. I shrank away, pressing to the wall on instict, creating vital space between us.

If she noticed, she did not reveal so.

The tiny sapphire was enveloped in platinum, a token well cherished. I'd lost it the day before in the course of our fateful stroll, our activities vigorous.

"Thank you," I managed, aiming to diffuse the tension. "Mighty gracious."

I waited for her to inform Mother of my behavior—of my moral failings—but she simply got to her boots and made for the foyer.

"Your home is lovely, Corinne. I appreciate the hospitality. Few on the Island share your faith in practice."

"Please, stop in at your leisure. Next time, I'll make tea."

"Don't imagine I'll be heading this far east," she said. "Not with a storm set to rattle the rock."

"Storm?" Mother echoed, surprised. It was the ides of March, and spring had already blessed us with early blooms and reams of sunshine. "I don't think we'll see but a trace. Been a pretty picture as of late."

"Blackberry winter," Esther countered. "The gods have a little fury left in 'em yet."

She nodded and took her leave.

While I admired my parents for their willingness to go against the grain—to buck the single-minded snobbery that infests the Vineyard—I nonetheless wished this the last experience I'd have of Esther Mayhew.

Some hopes are futile.

•♾️•

I was painting in the root cellar the following afternoon when Mother summoned me to the kitchen. Not feeling at my strongest, I didn't scurry—this was, in part, owing to an inkling for what she'd demand.

My instincts were proven correct when she held out a loaf swaddled in parchment and twine. The house was replete with the scent of zested lemons and their classic complement, poppy seeds. Mother's breads were legendary on the Island, from the fair circuit to charity functions to wakes.

"Put on your coat and take this up to the Mayhew residence. Seems to be a cold front moving in after all."

"No!" I cried, before I could think better of it. "I won't. I refuse. Besides, I'm unwell."

A reality, but of no use.

My mother fixed me with a look that would've sent Christ Himself scrambling for apology.

"You will do precisely as I say, the moment I say it," she declared, a finality in her voice that carried a corporal warning.

Too intimidated to reply, I began the retreat towards my bedroom.

"Rebecca! What in the devil has gotten into you? If you won't go, I'll have to send Libby, and she's small yet to be roaming that road."

At the mention of my sister, I gasped, cudgeled into adopting a false sense of bravery.

"Fine," I conceded, further objections dying like vines on our eponymous isle. "I'll do it."

Or, I reassured myself, I'll do enough so that you trust the task is complete.

As if reading my impertinent mind, my mother added, "And don't consider squirreling the parcel away elsewhere. I'll know, and your spot in the Boston Arts program will be given to a girl more deserving."

"You wouldn't!"

"I would."

Having heard of the plan from upstairs, Libby sought me out. Balancing on tip-toe, she kissed my cheek as I donned the necessary garb.

"Be careful, Becca. She scares me."

"Don't worry," I told her, certain I was worried enough for two.

•♾️•

The trek from an inland property like ours to Cottage City's shores was a solid couple of miles under favorable conditions. In contrast, I was going it with plodding care, fighting off the intrusive winds and my breeding angst.

Amid the howling weather, my thoughts drifted to the catalyst for this trouble. After Sunday services, Jane Coffin, Catherine Daggett, and I had taken the coastal route home, traipsing past the Mayhew lot as Esther hauled in a pair of buckets, filled to the splintered brim.

One tipped before spilling wildly, leaving her to struggle with its twin. We proffered no assistance.

Tickled by this display of Esther's feeble posture, Jane had begun to giggle, arranging her own bones in a manner that highlighted the crone's lameness.

Those giggles then developed into peals of laughter, so taken with our amusement that no regard for decency was spared.

When Esther had glared, eyes obscured by an unfashionable hat, we'd become fully uncivil.

"What are you looking at?" Catherine had taunted, emboldened by numbers and the ignorance that comes with being a legacy in privileged circles.

Attempting to right herself, Esther went florid, giving no reply. A dignified reaction, in hindsight.

For reasons I can neither justify nor explain, this had encouraged Jane to pick up a stone and throw it at her receding form. We'd followed her lead, pelting the elderly woman with as many rocks as were handy until she was out of range.

Why, I could not say. There have been stories for decades, claiming that she's a sorceress. That she was once married while living in Cambridge and put her husband in an early grave.

That children had a knack for disappearing in her vicinity, though no one could provide a name, let alone a specific instance.

Did I trust the rumors? It was more that I never sought to doubt them. She was, by any measure, an odd, difficult sort, never attending church or socializing. Never allowing anyone into her estate on the Bluff.

Who's to say what came first? Did she hide out of ill-intentioned secrecy, or was the community so unwelcoming that it seemed the logical option?

I was pondering as much when my fever became evident. The steep incline, now partially washed out by whitecaps and snowfall, was becoming harder to navigate, and the sky seemed to dim in concert with my senses.

About fifty yards from Esther's front steps, I took my last.

I was lying flat, staring towards Creation, the charcoal clouds watching over me, when she materialized above, a sneer splayed about a thin mouth.

It grew in breadth as my consciousness faded, another snowflake caught in a New England squall.

•♾️•

I woke in a bed fit for a princess, downy pillows and coverlets galore. My clothing had been replaced by a cotton nightgown, soft and soothing, and there were yellow flowers on the bureau straight ahead.

If not for the haziness, the pulsing in my temples–the scalding heat in my neck—it might have been pleasant. A respite.

Esther was seated on the quilt she'd draped atop my legs, hard at work on her needlepoint.

"You're back with the living," she whispered, her words wrapped in the compassion of a mother. "Praise goodness."

I propped myself up and, seemingly out of thin air, she produced a bowl of liquid. It smelled divine, and I could feel my hunger increasing.

She dug a spoon into its contents and delivered it to my waiting lips.

"Open."

I did so, instinct overriding caution. It was delicious, if foreign, a translucent, savory broth with a hint of brine. I could taste the ocean in every bite.

"My parents?" I croaked, throat thick. "Have they come for me? Or sent someone?"

"The paths to the Bluffs are washed out. Storm's still rearing up in spurts. Reckon no one's ventured anywhere since I discovered you. We're an island within an island."

I could not summon a response, my weakened pulse aflutter. We were entwined, she and I, this figure from my subconscious.

"You exerted yourself with chill and fever both," she continued. "I'm happy I was there to get you secured. You're on the mend, Rebecca."

That I was. With each morning and ensuing night—though I'd be at a loss to say how many there were—she nursed me back to health with the effort of an angel. Cold compresses on my forehead, broth and water to ease my needful belly.

While the apprehension at being trapped with a stranger—one I'd sorely mistreated and one whose reputation lingered—never waned, I was too feeble to dwell on it, in and out of wakefulness.

When I'd been in bed for what felt like an eternity, Esther appeared one evening with a basin, lifting the hem of my garment to wash my salty limbs. Fever, of course, draws forth sweat in torrents.

She took a saturated cloth and whisked it across my calves, taking care not to handle me roughly. She did the same to my ankles, my toes, even going so far as to clean my soles.

The relief was immense.

Straining to observe her efforts, I noticed that she had dropped to her knees.

With the slyness of a predator, she brought her face towards my largest toe, her mouth agape, drool flowing in anticipation.

Those eyes, always absent, sparkled.

I could sense steamy, rotting breath, the sharp tip of her incisor grazing the pad of my toe as it began to slide inward.

Before I could wail or recoil, for I was paralyzed, she pulled back, dissolving in hoarse laughter. My horror, I'm sure, fed her merriment.

Our pastor was fond of repeating that penance isn't supposed to be enjoyable. If this was meant to be mine, he's a wise man.

"You've nothing to fear, girly. I haven't eaten a child in a distant while."

She winked, signifying this was a joke. Immediately, though, the woman shifted towards the serious.

"I'm not oblivious to what's been spewed about me, but there's no teeth to it, if you'll forgive the pun. In fact, there's nothing I view as more precious, more worthy of preservation, than the young."

I was mum, causing Esther to push.

"I've been delicate with you, yes? Treated your body as a temple I'd like to see thrive for generations to come?"

In my improving state, I could no more argue with this than deny the months on the calendar, and yet she left me stricken with the deepest of unease.

•♾️•

Once the fever broke, I felt born anew.

I stood to find my legs would once more support me, swiftly dressing in the mauve linens I'd been wearing when illness invaded. Esther had laundered them.

Dawn ushered in a bright and cheerful morn, sun streaming through the sheer curtains. My lone symptom was now an intense, gnawing hunger, but I supposed that typical for someone who'd been through a fasting.

Life as I knew it was drawing nearer.

Esther, on the other hand, was nowhere to be located. With a tremor, I shouted her name.

Silence.

Relieved, I blazed through the labyrinth of stairs and hallways, hoping to exit unannounced. It was, despite her tenderness, unfathomable that she would allow me to leave at will.

As I was about to unlatch the back door, an accusation cut through the quiet.

"Going somewhere?"

I jerked my head around, the dizziness returning.

"I... yes. My mother must be in a frightened stupor."

"Nonsense," said Esther coldly. "I'm making griddle cakes just for you. Sit. Stay."

I hesitated, every hair on my nape tingling with the knowledge that something was wrong. Askew.

"You've been so generous, Ms. Mayhew, but I don't want to take advantage. Really, I have to—"

"I told you to stay."

She advanced towards me.

"Take off your coat, Rebecca. Now."

This was not a request. The woman thrust a pointer in the direction of the table and, for reasons I cannot understand, I complied.

She served me heaps of eggs, of sausage and potato, my stomach boundless. The breakfast was, it must be told, delicious. I devoured everything with gusto, unashamed of my ravenous methods.

By the last bite, I was using my hands.

•♾️•

Nerves somewhat calmed, I regarded my hostess, a litany of thank-yous on my tongue.

I reached for my blue coat, my cream-colored mittens, anxiety ratcheting with each article. The primal part of my brain—the cave where terror hibernates at all hours—expected Esther to deny me freedom, to keep me captive in her curious home.

To my delight, she said nothing more than, "Let me get the door for you."

My feet hustled across the stone walkway without another pleasantry, chestnut hair asway in the vernal gusts as I scaled the beach's wall.

Trouble was, my body did so without me. I observed my retreat from an onlooker's vantage, standing idly on Esther Mayhew's threshold, unable to believe my treacherous limbs.

I'm asleep, even still. Nightmaring. Crazed with febrile influences. Malady. When I truly come to, those feet will be mine. What I witnessed was but the restless illusion of a fiery mind.

When I checked, however, the hands available to me were callused and mottled, my wrists akin to neglected leather.

Brunch threatened to repeat, and yet the endless, aching hollow in my gut seemed to spread by the chaotic minute.

With haste, I searched the property, soundless but for the creaking oak beneath me. In the sitting room, hanging above an apricot chaise, was a mirror framed in ornate gold.

The woman in its reflection presented as ancient, her tresses loose and flowing as the storm that had imprisoned me.

Her dress—my dress—a muddy brown.

Above her right brow was a long, thready cut, angry and infused with recent pigment.

It was, I now recalled, in the precise spot where one of Jane Coffin's rocks had made contact.

I collapsed into a chair, my neck heavy and stiff with grief, a sensation native to these shoulders. The only aspect more uncomfortable was the never-ending want for nourishment.

As I was about to unleash a scream, there came a knock at the main entrance. I shot up and bellowed in a gravelly timbre so unlike my own.

"Who's there?"

I expected, perhaps, to find the lady of the manor, cloaked in my stolen skin.

I was mistaken.

The closest window was open, and my query had no difficulty reaching its intended audience. In response, a meek, sweet voice permeated my dulled ears, and I nearly fainted dead away.

"It's Elizabeth Luce, ma'am. I'm looking for my sister. Can I come in?"

No.

I flew towards the door with the hunger of renewed purpose. I would scare her off. I would tell her no, she was not invited in, that she need take immediate cover, for there were demonfolk in these pockets of the Island who would bring her dire harm.

I would send her careening towards the shelter of Mother and Father, so shaken that she wouldn't dare to happen upon this Hellmouth again.

That, at least, is what I wanted to do.

What I vowed to do.

Instead, I gripped the brass knob and gave it a twist, letting in the light exclusive to noontime and children of guileless temperament.

My eyes flitted to her ribbon of celadon, her plait of auburn, so like a sunset.

"Hello there, Libby. I'm Esther. Won't you join me for tea?"

The best-laid plans...

Horror
35

About the Creator

CJ Miller

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Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  2. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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    Writing reflected the title & theme

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    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

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Comments (10)

Sign in to comment
  • Kayla Lindley11 months ago

    Your pacing is well-balanced and kept me engaged without feeling rushed. I actually loved the time frame this is set in as well. Just overall good job.

  • Nice storytelling 😉😉

  • Mufeetha 11 months ago

    Great story..!

  • Will Simon11 months ago

    Beautiful

  • Olivia Davis11 months ago

    Love

  • Dana Stewart11 months ago

    Great story!

  • Hauntingly beautiful & mysterious, carrying us forth at the perfect pace to a horror that blossoms forth on a multitude of levels. The verbiage flows forth with such elegance while unmasking the dirtiest of sinful secrets & malicious intents. Vengeance is mine, & naught but the two of us shall ever know. And what it shall cause you to do....

  • K. C. Wexlar11 months ago

    Great read and I enjoyed the historical setting and voice of the narration! Congrats!

  • Sandra Matos11 months ago

    Excellent twist! Very unexpected!

  • Samia Afra11 months ago

    Beautiful imagery. Great period piece.

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