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The Spider

by Lisa France

My wife is not an enigmatic woman. There is not much that goes on which I do not readily know by just being in her presence. That is why, when I enter my office and I see her standing there with the letter in her hand, I know it is not good news. It is midwinter, snow has fallen but it has hardened into a sharp ice that either cracks or remains slick underfoot. The windows of my office are lined thick with this ice, but I can see that my wife has lit a fire in the hearth to lift the chill that has settled in my absence. Her pragmatism and practicality proves to be unfailingly useful in any situation.

She holds out the letter to me swiftly, mouth taunt as she offers me her cheek to kiss in our usual form of greeting. Before I even have a chance to look at the letter she sweeps to the other side of my desk. I watch her and wait for her to tell me what this is all about.

“It’s from Penelope,” she says shortly, but there’s a slight gasp when she does. “I haven’t read it.”

I feel my hands turn to ice around the paper of the letter.

“Though I think I can tell you what it’s about,” she says, slightly softer this time. This particular business always brings up a sour taste between us, and we haven’t spoken that name aloud in years. It might’ve brought us together, but the memory holds no reverence or joy. I don’t know what it makes her feel, but for me there is only sickness, as if an unstoppable bile of terror is welling up my throat with no escape.

My wife pulls a newspaper from inside the breast pocket of her jacket and hands it over to me in the same way she did the letter. It’s folded to the particular article she wishes me to read.

“Oh my god,” I say, dropping my briefcase to the ground. “It’s Charles.”

“I know.”

“He’s dead.”

Threw himself from the third story window of his home. Broke through the glass. I can picture the shards falling around him like tiny piercing droplets of rain. There is no more mystery, nor more uncertainty. It is finally well and truly over.

The only tangible emotion I can pinpoint is relief. I know it is neither kind nor appropriate to feel relief at the passing of an old friend, but I never decided if Charles was ever an old friend at all. To this day I wish we had been nothing more than passing acquaintances.

It was promising to be a balmy and humid summer when I made the deeper acquaintance of Charles Osborne. We were both medical students studying at college in Charleston in our third year, though we did not float in the same circles. Charles was a very singular sort of person, while I had always found myself to prefer the company and camaraderie of my fellow peers. However, I had encountered Charles in several of my classes over the years, and he seemed to take a liking to me. There was no doubt he was intelligent, one of those very intense and brooding minds that preferred to stir on subjects alone rather than sharing ideas of a group. I liked him fine, but I was of no mind to be his confidant.

It was a particularly low point that brought us together unexpectedly.

After spending the recent semester quite taken with one of the school secretaries, I had decided in a fit of romance to declare myself to her. I don’t think I realized how deep my affection ran until she refused me, politely yet pointedly. She was a few years my senior and did not think, due to both of our positions within the school, that it would be appropriate to pursue any sort of courtship.

“You didn’t really expect a different answer, did you?” She said, laying a hand on my arm.

In a wave of desperation I had kissed her then, and though she did linger a moment, she broke the embrace and gave me a curt slap.

It was also after this that I received a call from my father, dissuading me from returning home for the holiday. His new wife had just given birth to my younger brother and he did not think it wise for there to be any disturbances.

Charles found me sitting alone at the bottom of the stairs of our student house drowning my sorrows, I’m ashamed to say, in a bottle of cheap liquor. Charles was not the type to acknowledge a fellow peer in such a state or pay him any mind, but like I said, he seemed to like me.

“Having a time of it old boy?” He asked. Charles was prim to the point of absurdity, he always parted his hair down the middle and no matter how hot the day his cufflinks remained buttoned, his sleeves pressed and ironed.

When I told him of my plans for the holiday, he did not question why I could not go with my numerous other friends, or even why I could not go home. He seemed to accept that if there were better circumstances, I would have taken them.

“What say you to coming up and spending some time with me and my people for the holiday?” He asked rather flippantly. “We’ve got a lovely little spot up North away from it all, or so I’m told.”

The last part he offered with a humorless smile.

The idea of staying around the residency and seeing Sarah, the unrequited object of my sore affections, was unbearable to me. A quiet summer spent in the country sounded like the exact escape I was looking for. Without much hesitation I accepted.

For the scenery, he was correct. It was a lush and tranquil spot, with wild tall grasses and trees with long branches full of radiant green leaves. As we pulled up to the house, I felt at once a sense of ease and calm. Whitewashed, with a large wrap-around porch, oak tree and swing, the house was a picture in the glowing yellow light of late afternoon. As we approached an older woman burst from the house in excitement, waving merrily to greet us.

“Aren’t you just a sight for sore eyes!” She exclaimed as soon as Charles stepped from the car, running to embrace him. To his credit, I had never seen Charles so warm and affectionate. She had to be his mother. A man who appeared to be his father stood at the door not far behind.

“Charles wrote to me and told me you were coming,” his mother said to me as Charles went up to greet his father. “I was able to prepare the guest room, I hope it’s to your liking.”

“I’m sure it will be lovely,” I told her as we walked up the steps of the porch. “I cannot thank you enough for generously allowing me to stay in your home.”

“Any friend of Charles is welcome here,” his father said, extending a hand to me as he held open the door. I shook it.

The moment I entered the threshold I inexplicably felt a change in the atmosphere. The home was furnished quite nicely, everything looked warm and inviting, and yet there was an unspoken tension in the air. I could not describe it, and I felt ashamed for even recognizing it when Charles and his family had been nothing but gracious towards me.

There was a creaking noise, and from the landing of the kitchen I saw a young woman approach, followed by the purposeful rolling click of a wheelchair. The young woman’s figure blocked my view, but as she came towards us, it was all I could do not to gasp.

“There you are!” Charles exclaimed. “How’s my patient?”

At first I was alarmed, and then I found myself increasingly disturbed. I had initially thought Charles was referring to the young woman standing before him, strikingly beautiful in a lavender summer dress and heels. I had heard of her to be both his cousin and his fiancee. But he paid her little to no mind as he went straight to the frail and small child that sat in the wheelchair behind her.

They were sisters, I remembered Charles telling me. Half siblings, with the older sister being a substantial heiress upon coming of age. It was this fortune that bound Charles and his cousin, as the sisters were orphans and money she was to inherit would help Charles be successful in his future medical practice. The younger sister was penniless, but the family allowed her to stay with them.

I had thought nothing of it at the time, but now it was clear to me that both Charles and his cousin had no regard for each other whatsoever. In fact, he hardly glanced her way after months of separation.

“Hello,” she said in a voice that was oddly light and proper for her circumstances. “My name is Penelope, and this is my sister Polly.”

She had the most beautiful large brown eyes, and a heart shaped face with pleasant, closed lips. Even though I was instantly struck by her, there was something closed off, something almost inhuman, as if she was a porcelain doll that could break at any moment.

She gestured a lace gloved hand towards her sister that Charles hovered over, checking her pulse.

They could not look more different. The girl, Polly, was about twelve. She stared at me, cold and closed off, with large and mistrustful grey eyes. She had the same heart shaped face, but a weak chin and wire hair that surrounded her head like a rust-colored halo. The most striking of her features, what drew the eye in without relent, were her legs.

“You’ve heard, of course, the great service Charles did for Polly?” His mother hastily asked me, before I could even speak a word.

I had heard of it, of course. Charles had discussed it at medical school, and we had all been rather impressed with his quick thinking and ability to keep a clear head in such a situation. I knew I never could have done it.

“Yes,” I heard myself say, but I could not turn my eyes away from the intense and accusatory gaze of the little girl, as if damning me for even thinking admirably of it.

“Saved her life,” his father said, pointing to Polly’s legs.

What struck me about her legs was that the family had made a point of displaying their loss, fashioning a pair of overhauls so that everyone might see where Charles had cut off flesh and bone, and where he had sewn the skin, just below her kneecaps. The scar strained white against the smooth surface of the rest of her skin.

She had taken a bad fall some years ago and her legs did not heal properly. They had become infected, and when everyone realized what danger she was in, it was too late to call a doctor. Though he was barely a medical student himself at the time, Charles had rushed in and saved her from assured blood poisoning by preforming emergency amputations to both her legs. Miraculously, it seemed he had done rather a fantastic job of it.

“She’s here today because of it,” his mother said, beaming with pride. “Polly owes him her life, doesn’t she Penelope?”

“Yes,” said Penelope softly.

“You seem a bit pale,” Charles said to Polly, not hearing any of it. He took her chin sharply in his hand to examine her face, squeezing her cheeks ever so slightly. “Have you been doing your exercises?”

The girl did not respond to him, she just stared blankly up at him, as if in challenge. He turned to Penelope with indignant expectance.

“We go outside when we both have a mind to it,” she said, locking eyes with her sister. A strange, unspoken language passed between them.

“You know that’s not what I meant,” Charles replied harshly. He turned back to Polly. “Walk for me.”

It was a command, and I balked in surprise at the outrageousness of it. However no one else in the room seemed to find it absurd. Instead, his mother gasped in delight and touched my arm with a little squeeze.

“Now this is truly remarkable Arthur,” she insisted.

Penelope drifted backwards, like a flower turning away from the sun, and Charles stood over his charge, all authority and expectation. For a moment, I was unsure exactly what was supposed to happen, but then Polly leaned forward until her hands reached the ground and pulled herself out of her chair.

I almost shouted in protest, but found myself struck dumb as I watched Polly drag herself across the floor on her teetering arms, lifting her up but not enough for what was left of her legs to clear the ground. Rather, we all watched as they had to struggle to push themselves with her. Charles’ mother clapped her hands with joy, and his father smiled perversely. For himself, Charles watched her with acute critical observation as she went painstakingly back and fourth across the room.

I looked over to Penelope, but her expression was curiously blank. When she caught my gaze she gave me a polite smile, as if we had accidentally bumped into each other on a tram. I could not make sense of it.

“Surely she’s tired by now,” I spoke up, unable to take much more of the disturbing scene unfolding before me. Charles glanced up, as if just realizing I was there.

“Quite,” he agreed, motioning for Polly to return to her chair. Penelope held it steady as her younger sister pulled herself up. “While I’m here we’ll have regular exercises, you need to keep up your strength.”

Again, Polly said nothing but Penelope nodded.

“You still have the key to my room?” Charles demanded, sliding a finger under Polly’s collar and tugging forth a chain. A small brass key hung attached to it, and that seemed to satisfy him. “Should you need anything in the night, you have your bell as well.”

“And Penelope, of course,” his mother stepped in to inform me, as if finally aware of what such a relationship might look like to me. “They share the room together.”

This gave me little comfort, but I forced an unaffected smile. She showed me to my room, and though it was a lovely place, I could tell that I would never feel at ease in this home. Despite all its pleasant appearances, there was something underneath the surface, something seeping and rotten that set my teeth on edge.

I was meant to be writing a journal about diseases in small children. However, I largely felt myself writing to Sarah, missing her despite our unhappy parting, and somehow knowing she would understand the unease that I felt with Charles and his family. She had a discerning and practical open nature that I found myself supremely comfortable in.

“Is it a girl?” Penelope had crept up on me when I least expected it as I sat, trying to write in my journal, on their porch one afternoon. Charles was attending to Polly, as he did most of the days. In fact we only seemed to really see each other for meals.

“Pardon?” I asked. Penelope had a presence that was arresting and always left me feeling a little displaced. She smiled at me.

“You seem to have something on your mind,” she said. “Why don’t you take a walk with me?”

It was a request that took me by surprise. For a moment I thought of Sarah and almost declined, but then I shook that feeling resentfully, reminding myself that of her blunt dismissal.

It was a beautiful summer afternoon, the flies humming low over the tall grass, and the gorgeous golden light streaming gently through the trees. Penelope was a beautiful fixture in it, her delicate smile causing my heart to race. I had never been alone in the company of a girl like her, almost untouchable in her polite charm. She seemed to float in her floral printed summer dress, trailing her fingers, clad in laced gloves, over the tips of the tall grass absent-mindedly.

“Have you lived with the Osborne’s long?” I found myself asking for want of something to talk about. She nodded lightly.

“Ever since Polly’s father died,” she replied. “He died poor.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, feeling at a loss for what to say next.

“We considered ourselves lucky,” Penelope continued, “to fall into the hands of such kind relatives.”

I could not help but shift uncomfortably.

“Charles seems very attentive to your sister,” I commented, unable to stop myself. Penelope nodded, but it was impossible to tell if she felt anything about it.

“Yes,” she said. “He has devoted much of his life to her care.”

“Forgive me,” I said, for I could stand it no longer, “but what happened to Polly? Why was a Doctor not called sooner?”

Penelope was quiet for a moment, as if choosing her words carefully.

“I suppose you’d have to ask Polly that,” she responded after a few minutes. “But Charles knows best about these sorts of things.”

“Of course,” I said, rather regretting blundering onto the subject. She was promised to him, after all, and it was horribly tactless of me to imply anything. And yet... Penelope had such a beguiling way about her I found myself profoundly frustrated with Charles for his lack of interest in her. “I suppose you’re looking forward to being a doctor’s wife?”

“Polly’s father was a doctor,” Penelope sighed absently. “My father was, as you know, from wealth and it all goes to me. This, of course, is what binds me and Charles together.”

I was shocked at her frankness, yet I was only met with the same, passive smile that she had bestowed on me throughout our entire conversation. It baffled me that she could show no signs of outrage, or even of discontent, at the prospect of being attached to someone who did not care for her.

“And does that make you happy?” I asked.

“Why should it not?” She demurred, allowing me to hold her gaze, almost spellbinding. For a moment I found myself struggling to form words.

“Well, don’t you want to be in love?” I blurted out as she seemed to drift closer and closer to me, our gaze still locked in a dizzying hold.

“Are you in love?” She inquired, so close to me I could smell her scent. Like lilacs. I felt rather listless.

“I....” Her lips were slightly parted. “I don’t know.”

As if drunk, I found myself kissing her passionately, wrapped in an intoxicating embrace. She allowed me to kiss her quite freely, and yet it was as though she was merely a mirror of me, devoid of any real feeling. As I pressed her close to me, all I could feel was her distance.

As quickly as we came together, we fell apart.

I could not speak, could not even pluck up the words to apologize for my rash conduct, when she turned and slipped back down the path and away from me without so much as a word. Though I knew very little of Penelope, I knew, standing in the shadow of the paling daylight, that we would never speak of this to each other.

It was with some surprise that during the following week Mrs. Osborne informed me that I had missed a call on their telephone from Sarah, and that she should like me to respond as soon as I was able. Since the content of my letters had been somewhat tender in their subject matter, I waited until I was sure Mrs. Osborne was otherwise occupied before I stepped into the hall to put in a call to Sarah. A cluster of nervous energy overtook me as I began to pick up the telephone, my encounter with Penelope still fresh in my mind, and all the unease it brought me now rising again to the surface.

“I thought your family didn’t want you.”

I nearly dropped the telephone. Polly, as silent as a church mouse, sat not far from me in her wheelchair, giving me the most unsettling and distinct look.

“I beg your pardon?”

“That’s what Charles said,” she rolled towards me. “When he wrote us and told us you were coming.”

I did not know what to say in response. I had done my best to avoid Polly during my stay, and it seemed that Charles was keen to keep her from me. It almost felt like some sort of trespass to be speaking with her now.

“Penelope says you’re different from Charles.”

“How do you mean?” I at last found my faculties.

“Even though you’re both studying to be doctors,” she continued. There was a strange absence of anything childlike about her, as though she was trapped in the body of a little girl rather than living freely in it.

“What do you mean I’m different from Charles?” I asked again.

“You’re not like him,” she said. She fixed me with a piercing, intent gaze.“You don’t like to hurt.”

I felt a chill run throughout my entire body, every muscle cold as ice.

“What do you mean by that?” I demanded.

Polly just started up at me, as if waiting.

“Polly,” my voice wavered, “what happened to you?”

It felt, in the most hair-rising of ways, as if I was being tested by her somehow. For what, I scarcely wanted to know.

“I had an accident,” she said. “I fell down the stairs.”

I nodded numbly. All at once I was consumed with the desire to run, but it seemed that I was now allowed into her confidence. Again she rolled closer towards me, and I knew I could not escape even if I wanted to.

“How did you fall down the stairs?”

I could feel what I had felt since the moment of entering the house. Every second we stood there was building upon it, as though we were both pulling an invisible string. That at last she would pull too tight, and the scales would tip, and all the secrecy and obstruction that had been carefully crafted would come tumbling down. It was so strong, the feeling, that I was nearly sick with it.

“Charles was at the top,” she said. “Charles was standing over me.”

All at once I felt my vision blur, and she did not need to continue for me to know the horror of what she meant. I ran from the house, staggering half mad into the fields and trees in order to wash myself of it entirely. I could not breathe. I collapsed to the ground, shaking in disgust for what I realized I had dreaded all along. Unable to even comprehend the passage of time, I stayed there, immobile, in wretched conflict.

“There you are,” I heard Charles as if he was speaking to me in a dream. “We were wondering what happened to you. Mother said she saw you tear out of the house as if you had seen a ghost.”

When once I had seen a young man I admired and respected, now all I saw was a hideous and cowardly monster.

“What did you do to that little girl?” I demanded violently, scrambling to my feet. Charles gazed at me for a moment, then frowned.

“I’m not sure what you’re driving at, old boy,” he said.

“Ever since I’ve stepped foot in this house, something hasn’t been right,” I continued, half talking to him, half talking to myself. “The way you treated her...”

“As any doctor would treat his patient,” Charles replied.

“No,” I spat, shaking my head. “It’s unnatural.”

“I must say,” Charles sighed. “I’m disappointed. I had taken you to be an intelligent, level-headed fellow. But now... Well I hardly know what to make of you.”

I barked with sharp, mirthless laughter.

“She as good as told me you had done it,” I informed him, almost triumphantly. “Thrown her down the stairs to make it look like an accident.”

Charles’ demeanor darkened significantly.

“Polly was destined to live a dull, ineffectual life,” he said. “Now she will go on to help hundreds.”

“Through your surgeries?” I mocked him. Charles sneered. I had, at last, treaded upon the nerve that he would not stand.

“You think that you’re somehow above me because that little bitch told you how I shoved a dirty nail in her leg and threw her down the stairs for good measure?” He came towards me, staring me down as if to render me small. “You’ll never be half the man I am. You could never have the courage to do what I’ve done.”

“You call it courage?” I had never felt more hatred then I did in that moment. “Infecting a little girl so you can play god?”

“She’s more than just a little girl,” Charles replied. “And to her, I am god.”

“To me you are nothing,” I shoved him away, hard. “I’ve finished with you entirely. Come tomorrow morning, you will see no more of me. I’m leaving this wretched place.”

“Do what you like,” Charles called after me, “but they’ll never believe you, at school. No one ever will.”

It poisoned my heart to know that he was right. I had no real proof, save the bile Charles had just said, to back up any claim of the violence that had been done here. If Penelope and Polly hadn’t come forward by now, I knew they never would. I knew innately that Penelope was fully aware of what Charles had done. She had to be, and yet both sisters sat silent and polite in the house, like puppets to be played with whenever he fancied. I could not understand any of it, and I was unwilling to stay a moment longer to begin to try.

I went straight to my room. There was no use trying to get into town to wait for a train until the following morning, but I told myself that at the crack of dawn I would set off on foot to take the earliest train back to school and away from here. As I packed my suitcase, haphazardly stuffing garments and pencils inside, I could hear Charles downstairs, making excuses for me. His voice, arrogant and smug, floated through the floorboards.

“No mother, Arthur won’t be joining us for dinner. Unfortunately he has a most disagreeable headache, and will have to return to school early.”

What she said in response to that, I could hardly hear or care to know. I decided to sleep in my trousers and shirt, not wanting to waste a moment come first light.

I only realized I had fallen asleep when I was awoken by a sharp and purposeful jolt. The fingers of some unknown person were pressed firmly into my arm. For a moment, I panicked in the dark, visions of tormented dreams still clouding my eyes. What I saw once they focused sent a deeper spark of surprise and distress cutting into my chest.

Penelope stood over me, white as a ghost, illuminated in the moonlight from the window over my bed. She seemed like a dream herself, her long dark hair spooling down as if to embrace me in a gentle yet ominous caress. My throat dry, my heart racing, I could only stare frozen as she slipped back towards the door and then silently away.

It was only then that I realized the house was on fire.

As if all sounds had been suspended in her presence, the moment she left a billow of smoke rushed in to fill her place. I could hear the groan of the wood as the flames began to consume it. There was a scream and shouting, presumably Charles’s parents. The smell of the burning wood was so potent that all at once I was made dizzy with it, gasping as I choked on the putrid fumes.

Leaping from the bed, I threw my arm over my mouth and nose and snatched up my belongings. There was no telling where the fire had started. The entire hallway was clouded with an orange grey smoke. Hurrying as fast as I could, I could feel the heat increasing as I bounded down the stairs, the flames becoming visible as they fanned across the ceiling of the ground floor. Their roar of hunger as they devoured the wood was tremendous.

I burst from the house, coughing, the sharp hooks of smoke catching against my throat. Each inhale felt like a laceration. Water streamed from my eyes and I doubled over, nearly sick from the harshness of the air.

A blood-curdling wail lifted me from my position. In the blur I could see Charles’s mother, clawing desperately as her husband struggled to restrain her, screaming and sobbing.

“Charles!” She shrieked. “Charles!”

I whipped around in a frenzy and saw what she was pointing at. In that moment my heart ceased to beat.

Charles was trapped inside the house.

I could see him, the outline of his form dark against the blazing light of the flames. His window was locked and he could not escape.

His mother collapsed in a near faint, but what sent even more alarm through me was how quiet and calm Penelope and Polly were, staring up at the flames transfixed. There was nothing present in Penelope’s gaze as she watched the smoke curl into the black sky, as though she were dreaming, immovable. It was as each of them were suspended, hanging by strings.

Polly caught my eye. Wordlessly, she slipped her fingers under the collar of her pajamas and gently, methodically, pulled at something. Silently, she reached out, holding the key that would open Charles’ door.

It was a silent bargain, the choice she offered dangling in the air with the whisper of an urgent unspoken question. What would I do?

I can scarcely recall the gravity of conflict that raged within me as the fire whipped and cracked, swelling and swelling into the cold summer air with triumphant bellows.

That moment will be suspended in time for as long as I live.

I tore the key from her fingers and, filled with nothing but momentum, hurled myself back into the raging house.

Smoke overtook me, the blistering heat enough to choke me alone. Hell closing in around me, screaming and beating against me with hot lashes, I staggered. I plunged deeper into the depths of rage and turmoil, ash raining down hot on me in droves. My heart beating so wildly I could barely feel my other senses, I crashed up the stairs and towards Charles’s room.

My hand closed on the door knob, key outstretched, and then I recoiled, screaming, my flesh burning white hot. The key slipped from my hand, lost to the atmosphere, smoke flying up around me like a shadowed prison.

Crashing, the world crumbling around me, I nearly fell to my knees as the house shook. Horror rushed through my blood as I looked up to see the devil was upon me, rushing towards me in raging flames. I screamed, but it was nothing compared to the blood curdling unearthly noise of rage and thirst that erupted from his flaming lungs.

I threw myself down the stairs, falling hard against the hot wood. The devil stood at the top of the stairs, staring down at me, hungry, screaming. Scrambling, I propelled myself towards the rectangular black hole of the door, hearing him pounding down the stairs behind me, every second drawing closer and closer—

The darkness grabbed hold of me and I felt the wetness of mud seeping into my clothes. The pain of my fall from the house rushed in, my body alight with agony. I was paralyzed, clutched against the ground, as I turned to see the monstrous figure haloed in bright evil flames break from the house and rush towards me—

Everything went black.

I awoke shrouded in white. White light seeped through my eyelids, and as I opened them I could feel the singular rush of numbness and pain. Light filtered through my gaze in strange and manufactured ways. I heard an intake of breath, and then a saw her, like a true angel in a time of false dreams and hallucinations. A grounding realness, a sense of calm and transparency.

“Sarah,” I heard the sound of my voice like a nightmare, cutting, rough and thin.

“Don't speak,” she said, her gaze critical and assessing. “Not yet anyways.”

I tried to reach for her and she took my hand. Her strength was my strength in that moment.

“I’m here now,” she said. “I told your father there was no one better to care for you.”

She leaned forward and pressed a kiss against the skin of my forehead.

“Sleep now.”

It seemed that I only closed my eyes for a moment, a sigh of breath, and all her warmth and light vanished as if blown away by the wind. When I opened them the world was still bathed in white, sterile and clean, but it was cold and absent. I was alone, my hands wrapped in gauze, my flesh still burning from the inside out, the smoke clinging to my lungs wet and thick. I could feel the deep and aching bruise of pain as I settled into total present consciousness.

It was in this moment that I realized I was not alone.

She stood by the window, dressed in dark grey, a tight stiff collar up around her neck, her luster brown hair up and coiled at the nape of her neck, a hat with a thin black veil pinned to her head. More present than a ghost, and yet still as if conjured from a dream.

“Oh good, you’re awake.”

It was Polly who spoke. I nearly leapt from the bed, realizing she was so close, observing me from the foot of my bed with those cold, triumphant grey eyes. Her hair was pulled back tight, and she too was adorned in grey, her hands folded on each arm of her chair with an air of absolute authority.

“Penelope said we shouldn’t wake you, but I hate to wait.”

There was semblance of humor to her voice, her expression contrite.

I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak. It seemed as if all at once the smoke was rising within my throat and choking me. I tried to cry out, to call for Sarah, but all that left me were the feeble and desperate animal-like gasps of desperation.

“You were very heroic,” Polly continued, demure, “rushing into the house like that. Charles has his life to thank you for.”

“He’s alive,” I managed in my shock to rasp.

“Oh yes,” Polly said, a derisive smile creeping onto her face. “The doctors say it’s a miracle. He was burned so badly. From head to foot, you could hardly recognize him. He’ll never practice medicine, of course. He can’t even lift a spoon for himself, can he Penelope?”

Her sister remained unmoving at the window.


“We’ll still go through with the wedding,” Polly informed me pointedly. Everything in her tone told me I was not to express any further misgivings. “Make sure Charles gets the very best kind of looking after.”

Penelope turned to look at me, but there was nothing in her gaze.

“We should go,” she said.

They were at the door when Polly turned, fixing me with one final look. I will never forget the feeling in her eyes.

“Who knows,” she said with a little laugh, “maybe one day he’ll walk for me.”


Hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area, Lisa France grew up with a love of drawing basically anything, making the people around her laugh, and a huge appetite for stories. Since she can remember, she has been fascinated with the art of spinning a good tale. Currently she is undertaking her Masters of Arts at San Francisco State University, studying creative writing with the prospect of graduating in 2025. She has been published in Unbound: University of Oregon's Literary Journal, and SFSU's Transfer magazine. Her favorite things include spending time with her mischievous diva of a cat, bird watching, hiking with her close friends, watching good movies, and making wildly delicious but often difficult desserts. You can find her on Instagram.


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