A Thousand Shards of Porcelain
Being stuffed into a wardrobe with your hands tied is a dreadful way to start your day.
There’s hardly any light, but for the yellow glint of a candle flame through a small crack in the door. Dust tickles my nostrils. Spiders are in the corners too.
I hate spiders.
I breathe out through my nose and try to think of something peaceful—?something besides Dr. Barnes sitting with Mother, nervously clutching a handkerchief or glass of sherry, hoping beyond hope that somehow, a message from his dead daughter, Lydia, will be revealed.
That would be through me.
I am the vessel, you see, through which the dead loved one will speak.
Actually, it is all a sham.
This is how it works.
We knew Dr. Barnes had lost his daughter recently, and when he made the appointment, all it took was a few flowery words to begin the ruse:
Dab your eyes, dry your tears. I am in the bosom of the Lord, in Whose grace I have found everlasting peace.
What Dr. Barnes doesn’t know is that an hour before his arrival, I wrote this very message on a chalk slate and hid it in the wardrobe’s secret panel. From there, ?it became a very simple matter to step inside with a blank one and make the swap. Also—?and this is key—?Mother is very good at tying slipknots.
Soft murmurs echo beyond the door. I picture Mother with closed eyes, her thin nostrils flaring. On some days, the flames from the fireplace provide enough heat for her face to flush, which makes the act all the more authentic.
I hear the scrape of a chair and then footsteps. Finally. I sigh in relief. I want to get out of here.
I pinch my cheeks for a rosy flush and slip my hands back into the knot. The iron lock of the wardrobe clicks. The door squeaks open. I take a deep breath, force my body to go limp, and then, with an exaggerated gasp, fall face forward onto the floor.
Dr. Barnes leaps out of his chair. I hear his teacup rattle on the table and then crash, sending a thousand shards of porcelain across the brick tiles of the hearth. “Oh, my God!” he cries. “Is she . . . is she dead?”
Mother, being a true professional, plays her part with ease. “No, she is fine. She has been to the other side. Please. Give her a moment.”
She kneels and leans in close, then brushes a lock of hair from my eyes. The fresh scent of Cameo Rose surrounds me. It is a lovely fragrance, and one I always associate with Mother, which lifts my spirits whenever I am down—?something I feel at this very moment, for I can already feel the bruise swelling on my forehead. She helps me up, unties the thin rope that binds my wrists, and leads me to a long chaise covered in red and blue damask. Dr. Barnes, old chap, withdraws a silk handkerchief from his vest pocket. “There, there, dear girl,” he says, dabbing my brow. I almost feel sorry for him. I ease my head back and let out a breath.
Mother picks up the slate from the floor. She gives Dr. Barnes a sharp look. “The dead do not always speak what we would wish to hear,” she intones. “And oftentimes, their messages can be confusing . . . or even incomprehensible.”
Dr. Barnes exhales a shaky breath. Mother unclasps the two sides of the slate.
The blood drains from her face.
“What is it?” Dr. Barnes asks, drawing closer.
Mother is speechless, her mouth open in shock or confusion, I don’t know which.
Dr. Barnes wrenches the slate away and peers over the top of his spectacles. I sit up and read the words written in a crooked script.
Ring around the rosy, a pocketful of posies.
Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down!
And below, written in a spidery scrawl, one single letter . . .