Autumn ambled in astonishingly warm. This was a source of delight for some, like Victoria, who was gleefully able to continue her walks to deliver the mail without needing to dress in layers. For Mrs. Gibson, however, the pleasantry harbored nothing but distrust.
“It’s an ominous pattern of weather,” she’d sniffed, sitting at the head of her dining room table. The Blaylocks had been invited over for a dinner of dry roasted chicken and an unseasoned salad. Curled between their feet underneath the table was Alexander who was, mercifully, slumbering. Mrs. Gibson had discovered in Alexander another reason to remain a recluse, citing that if she dared leave her house the animal would wreak havoc on her furniture which, while probably true, still warranted annoyance from the Blaylocks.
What lack of adaptation Mrs. Gibson displayed in her situation she made up for by inviting the family over to the aforementioned meal.
“All this is merely a harbinger of a harsh winter.” Mrs. Gibson sliced a hand through the air. “Nothing good lasts for very long. Robert, you of all people should know.”
Mr. Blaylock choked on his water. “Pardon?”
“Why, your hair.” Mrs. Gibson fluffed her own—silvery blonde, but still voluminous. “I recall it used to be a magnificent shade of auburn, like Maggie’s. Now it’s gone and faded. Such a shame. At least Maggie will know what to expect.”
Maggie, who found all talk about the subtleties of hair shades and weather, no matter how steeped in superstition, dull and meaningless, spent her grandmother’s prolonged rants staring at the worn porcelain pig on the wooden shelf hanging on the wall opposite her side of the table, a figure that filled her with more dread than any prospects of sub-zero weather or loss of hair pigmentation.
Following their lackluster meal and unstimulating conversation topics, they all played a game of bridge in which Mrs. Gibson was unabashedly victorious, and then the Blaylocks were promptly sent home.
“She’s trying,” Mama sighed as they traversed the yards, the sun sinking in the sky, “and that makes a world of difference to me.”
Victoria, hovering on the precipice of twenty-four, had put herself in a very introspective mood indeed. She must have appeared more serious than usual, as more than once Lena had commented on her lack of “annoying cheerfulness.”
I’ve been feeling a little melancholy lately, Victoria wrote to Simon. She hadn’t yet received a response from her last letter, but began a new one nevertheless, feeling a need to outpour her troubled thoughts:
I always do in the weeks leading up to my birthday—which is on a Tuesday this year, which somehow makes it so much worse. When I was a little girl, I thought I’d be somebody admirable, like a nurse or a stage actress. But as it turns out, I don’t like being around sick people and I can’t act. Do you think I’m destined to be a housemaid for the rest of my days? (Answer honestly. It’s fine if I am. I think I made peace with it, for now.)
Anyway, enough about my woes. I’m curious about that hunting trip. I know you said you weren’t too keen on it, but I think it sounds exciting and adventurous—though I’ve never spent any amount of time in the woods, especially not equipped with weapons and on the prowl for wild game (if that’s what you do hunt; I’m assuming that’s what most people hunt, but I’m not sure. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what all “wild game” entails—deer? Turkeys? Grouse?).
I’ll close before I show more of my ignorance.
Simon’s reply to Victoria’s proceeding letter arrived that afternoon:
Dear Victoria: —
I do remember Mrs. Gibson from her unexpected appearance at Mrs. Blaylock’s lawn party. She kind of terrified me if I’m being honest. The fact that she somehow accidentally has acquired a pet fox is incredible. (I laughed when I read that and startled my mother, who was reading her magazine nearby. She doesn’t like sudden noises.)
You’re right about the school’s namesake, who was not, in fact, Henry David, just some fellow named William. This has incidentally led to some confusion (and disappointment) amongst both students and locals.
I dread to inform you that the strawberries will most likely not survive the frost. One can hope, though.
Tell me more about the weird happenings over at the Blaylock’s. They never fail to amaze me.
This was quickly followed by another, which Victoria saved for the evening when she and Lena were settling down. Victoria nestled herself atop her bed, still dressed in her day clothes, and tore open the envelope, inside of which was a tiny, tissue-wrapped package. Gingerly, Victoria pulled the paper apart. A small, pink-purple flower rested inside. She set it on her lap and read the note:
Dear Victoria: —
I’m sorry that you’re feeling so much distress over your current situation. I wish I could uncover your destiny for you, but since that’s impossible, let me tell you a little about mine:
“What’s that?” Victoria heard Lena ask. “Someone mailed you a flower?”
“Not now,” grumbled Victoria, “I’m reading.”
My dad hired me to do the bookkeeping for his lumber factory. (I know what you’re thinking, and it’s not simply nepotism; it turns out that I’m fairly qualified for it, having gone to Thoreau, after all.) It’s not very exciting work, but it’s satisfactory enough. But it’s not what I’m compelled to do.
Do you feel compelled to be a housemaid?
About the hunting trip: I did go, but I spent most of the weekend thinking up ways to sneak away from the party to collect some plant specimens to study. I keep a little book where I paste the ones I like the most, to study and make observations. (Quite a few I stole from Mrs. Gibson’s yard, which was a cornucopia of plant diversity.)
I’ve enclosed something for you which I hope survived the trip without losing its shape. It’s a morning glory, which is one of the only flower species native here that survive late into autumn.
Lena’s stare was fairly burning a hole in the side of Victoria’s head. Before Lena could snap another question, Victoria asked her, “Do you feel compelled to be a housemaid?”
“What? What kind of a question is that?”
“Well, do you?”
Lena snorted. “I feel compelled to go to sleep. I work because I have to. Is there something wrong with that?”
“No.” Victoria folded the letter and rushed to the desk.
“Really, Victoria? You’re writing a letter now?”
Victoria, ignoring Lena, grabbed a fresh sheet of stationery and a pencil.
Dear Simon: —
Firstly, thank you for the morning glory. It’s exquisite. I’m hiding it at the back of my dresser drawer so Lena won’t steal it.
What are you compelled to do?
She paused to review her writing. Finding it sufficient, she signed it and stuffed it into an envelope. She then plucked the flower from her bed, cocooned it in the tissue paper, and went to the dresser.
“Now what are you doing?” Lena groaned.
“I’m just checking for something,” Victoria murmured. She tucked the flower in the back corner and covered it in a skirt she hadn’t worn in several months. “Found it.”
Victoria combed through Maggie’s wardrobe, feigning interest in faded dresses and chemises. It was evening and Maggie spent most of it alone in her room, only having called Victoria up mere minutes ago. While Maggie mused aloud about something to do with mottoes, Victoria mulled over a question in her own mind.
At the first lull in Maggie’s commentary, Victoria sprung.
“You knew Simon when you were children, right?” Victoria turned to see confusion cross Maggie’s face.
“Yes, we were close childhood friends, up until the time he went off to private school,” answered Maggie. “Why do you ask?”
Victoria shrugged. “I think about him, sometimes—I mean, he was such a regular part of our life—of your life—for so long, you know. I hope he’s doing well.”
Maggie sighed, sitting down at her vanity. “I haven’t heard a single thing about the Aldridges since June.” She pulled a pin from her hair and dropped it into a little porcelain bowl. “You’re right, though. I do worry about him.”
“Why?” Victoria lingered at the armoire.
“Oh.” Maggie sighed again. She dropped another pin. “He was always sort of shy, you know, as a kid. Not around me, mind you, or Winnie. We were as thick as thieves.”
Plunk went another pin.
“But his dad was always really harsh on him.”
“Mr. Aldridge is something of a bully, which you might have noticed. He always gets his way. One time—” Maggie paused, then continued, lowering her voice. “Oh, dear. I don’t know if I should be telling you this, but I suppose it doesn’t make much of a difference now. Mr. Aldridge used to hurt Simon, Victoria. He—Simon—used to have these awful bruises…I think he’s naturally shy, yes, but I also think maybe a part of him is still scared to do or say the wrong thing. I’m sorry, Victoria—you look horrified. I shouldn’t have said anything at all.”
“You’re sorry?” Victoria lowered herself to Maggie’s desk chair. “Why should you be sorry? I feel stupid and ashamed that I spent so much time around Simon and never knew or noticed anything was wrong.”
“Why would you have assumed anything?” Maggie said. “Besides, I don’t know if Mr. Aldridge is still…I think maybe things have gotten a little better.”
“Do your parents know?”
“Do my parents know about—? Heavens, no. I wouldn’t think so. It happened so long ago, Victoria.”
“Then why would you still worry about him?”
“Can we please not talk about this? It upsets me.”
In the bowl went the final pin with a forceful clatter.
“Yes. I’m sorry,” murmured Victoria.
After that, Victoria occupied her letters with descriptions of the Blaylocks’ menus, the troubles the dog got into, Mr. Blaylock’s excited rants about his magazine articles and illustrations, and how difficult it was to fall asleep with Lena snoring up a storm.
Simon remained fixated on his grand proposition.
What compels me, he wrote, is the knowledge that there’s an entire world full of people and things outside of myself. I could never attempt to see or discover even a quarter of it in my lifetime, and that’s fine with me.
“Victoria!” Maggie ran into the kitchen one morning, a compact envelope in her grasp.
“Look—I finally got those photographs developed.”
Victoria sidled up to Maggie, eyeing the envelope eagerly.
“Photos?” Lena scoffed. “You’re taking photographs now? How very modern of you. Of what?”
“Hush, Lena,” snapped Victoria. “Alright, let’s see them.”
Maggie opened the package and shuffled out the photos.
“Oh, no,” she breathed.
They were barely discernable, fogged catastrophes of phantom faces and bodies and Alexander faded together. The only one that was somewhat coherent was one of Victoria wrangling Alexander, an expression of astonishment on her face.
“I’ll take that one, thanks.” Victoria plucked it from Maggie’s fingers.
See the attached, she wrote to Simon.
A magnificent likeness of myself and Alexander—that’s the fox, in case you’ve forgotten. Isn’t she a dear? The fox, I mean. Alexander is a girl. My apologies for the confusion.
When she received her next letter, Victoria was dismayed at first glance when she saw the few, curt lines bleeding through the folded page. She hesitated before finally unfurling it.
She’s lovely—the girl and the fox.
And Victoria hardly knew what to feel about that. Confoundingly, she could only think of the night when she’d returned, dejected, to Our Lady of Second Chances after terminating her position at the Nolan household. After all the children had been put to bed, Sister Agnes invited Victoria into her office, where she’d kindled a fire in the fireplace and set out a plate of shortbread. She and Victoria had sat beside the flames, and Victoria had cried. The shortbread was stale; the room, despite the fire, was cold; and Victoria was weary from travel. Sister Agnes asked no questions and neither of them peered at the clock. The evening tipped into the night, Victoria quelled her tears, and the morning, not so far away, was a fine promise.
Victoria returned from a bath to Lena sitting cross-legged on her bed with a familiar collection of letters fanned out before her.
“Oh, curses,” Victoria groaned.
“You sneaky little minx.” Lena glanced up with a sly grin. “You’ve been writing to Simon Aldridge!”
“He’s been writing to me, too,” blurted Victoria.
Lena’s brows arched. She leaned back on the bed.
Victoria’s stomach dropped. “Please don’t tell anyone.”
“Maggie doesn’t know?”
Victoria shook her head.
“Aha.” Lena nodded.
“So you won’t? Tell anyone, I mean?”
“Of course not! Why would I do that?”
Victoria didn’t want to answer that.
“How many did you read?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I only skimmed.” Lena sighed and swept the letters into a little pile and stood. “Pretty boring stuff—from what I read, anyway.”
“That’s not very nice,” Victoria countered.
Lena extended the stack of letters to Victoria. “I guess those people at your orphanage don’t really care about you, after all. Clever little trick, by the way, with the return address.”
Victoria took the letters. “So you’re impressed?”
“Don’t get proud.” Lena turned and threw herself onto her bed. “Good night.”
An awful knocking at the front door interrupted the Blaylocks’ dinner. Mrs. Putnam, bursting out of the kitchen, called out that she was fetching the door. The family waited in puzzled silence until Mrs. Putnam opened the door and, without any semblance of a greeting, Mrs. Gibson rushed inside, wailing like a banshee. Mrs. Putnam tottered after her, imploring Mr. and Mrs. Blaylock with an apologetic head shake.
“Mother!” gasped Mrs. Blaylock, rising from her chair. “What’s happened?”
Mrs. Gibson nodded, then shook her head—resulting in a rather confused few moments of anticipation from her family—then cried, “Alexander left me!”
“Do you mean she…died?” Mrs. Blaylock trod lightly.
“No! She ran away.”
“When did this happen?” Mr. Blaylock asked.
“Just now—just a few minutes ago—she bolted right out of the front door. She left me like it was nothing.”
Mr. Blaylock stood, and she and Mrs. Gibson left to begin a search. Mrs. Putnam lingered hesitantly in the dining room doorway.
“Oh, dear.” Mrs. Blaylock returned to her seat.
“I’m going to help them,” Maggie stated.
“Please don’t get your new shoes all muddy,” whined Mrs. Blaylock as Maggie escaped.
For an hour Mrs. Gibson, Mr. Blaylock, and Maggie scampered through the entire Northern end of the Cape, waving strips of beef from dinner in hopes of enticing the animal and feeling quite stupid while shouting the fox’s name to no success. They only managed to attract a collection of nosy squirrels, an angry flock of sea birds, and the attention of an older man walking alone down the street.
“Eh, Alexander?” he squinted at the three of them, stopping with a slight hunch.
“Yes, we’re looking for Alexander—that’s the name of our lost, uh, pet,” Maggie clarified.
“I’m Alexander,” the man said. “You ought to be more careful about shouting people’s names down the whole neighborhood.”
“Yes, sorry,” apologized Mr. Blaylock. “Please, continue on your way. We’re sorry to have interrupted.”
With a gruff sniff, Alexander shuffled away.
They ended the night by firelight. Mrs. Gibson, wrapped in an overlarge quilt and swamped in Mr. Blaylock’s armchair, looked quite pathetic, Maggie thought. The very same woman who had mercilessly condescended Maggie’s character appeared much less vindictive hidden beneath layers of cloth and despair.
Maggie leaned into the warmth of the crackling fire, sitting hearthside with her knees drawn up like she had done as a girl, to Mama’s chagrin. Right then, inspired by a flood of childhood memories of fireside autumn nights, Maggie decided that she was to going to host a bonfire.
“Just for a few girls—and Victoria,” Maggie explained to Mama the next day. “It’s her birthday in a week, you know, and I think it would be nice for her to have a night off for some fun.”
Maggie, longing sincerely to branch out more socially, had written to a handful of her old acquaintances from school, hoping that at least one of them would want to reciprocate the friendship. Of the dozen or so letters she’d sent, only three had responded thus far. She figured that perhaps hosting a good party might encourage a more enthusiastic response.
“Hm.” Mrs. Blaylock sighed through her nose. “I suppose it would be fine. Write up a list for Mrs. Putnam of what you’re planning on serving.”
“Thank you, Mama.” Maggie gave her mother a quick squeeze and then ran off to tell Victoria, who was just as pleased as Maggie suspected she’d be.
Also pleased by the prospect was Mrs. Kilmeade, who invited her daughters to Maggie’s occasion during the Ladies’ Club meeting at her house. Before the hostess’s presumptive declaration, the meeting had been proceeding smoothly for Maggie. She might have considered herself enjoying the light conversation and refreshments (tea and cider donuts, made by Mrs. Kilmeade herself).
“My girls, Meghan and Erin, would love to go to a bonfire party,” Mrs. Kilmeade boasted. “It sounds marvelous. They’re not so much younger than you, Maggie, and they don’t have a great number of friends. They’re dear girls, but a little meek. Mostly they stick together.”
As if conjured by the mention of their names, Meghan and Erin manifested in the doorway. They stood there, side by side, silently blinking at their mother’s guests.
“Ah, here they are! Say hello, girls,” Mrs. Kilmeade nudged.
“Hello,” said Meghan. Erin shrunk back a little behind her sister.
Mama gave Maggie a side-eye.
“I’d love to have them over,” Maggie gushed with false enthusiasm. “Just make sure they bring a dozen of these.” Maggie lifted her half-eaten pastry to a smattering of relieved laughter.
After the Kilmeade sisters had departed and the ladies had settled, Mrs. Spencer raised the matter of next month’s auction.
“The Maxes have graciously offered their hotel’s event room to us,” she declared. Mrs. Max nodded with a smile. “As most of you recall, last year we raised $5,000 for the Jersey Boot Project, which provided over one hundred pairs of new boots to New Jersey policemen.”
Maggie clapped alongside the rest of them, all the while pondering how truly desperately the law enforcement needed new footwear.
“Now, some of you have already brought to me some ideas of what cause we should champion this year. Miss Sprightly suggested donating money to the library for new materials.”
A weak applause.
“And Mrs. Bassett suggested a donation to the Navy.”
More enthusiastic applause.
“I would like to suggest something,” Maggie announced.
Mrs. Spencer’s smile fell.
“What about Our Lady of Second Chances Foundling Hospital?”
“Where’s that?” asked Mrs. Max.
“Philadelphia? My goodness. Well, we usually try to stay more local,” Mrs. Spencer objected.
“Our newest member of the household staff, Victoria, grew up there,” Maggie continued. “She’s been getting a lot of mail from them lately—I think they might be looking for some assistance. There are a lot of children and babies living there that would really benefit from a donation. We could even all make some items to send to the kids for Christmas.”
An excruciating few moments of silence passed.
“…Maybe,” added Maggie. “Just a thought.”
She studied the faces around her; the women were all looking at each other, trying to gauge one another’s reactions.
“I’d love to make some stuffed toys for them,” Miss Sprightly piped up.
Mama nodded. “I think they’d adore your little animals, Alice. I believe I’ll start making some scarves and mittens.”
“I think this charity is a winning idea, Maggie,” approved Mrs. Max. “Who cares if it’s not a local cause, Anna? It’s local enough.”
The other ladies nodded and murmured their various appraisals. Maggie settled into relief, feeling an odd sense of triumph.
“Alright then, I guess the orphanage is our decided charity this year,” said Mrs. Spencer, whipping out her pencil to denote the update in her secretary pad while the room burst into inspired conversation. Mama gave Maggie’s hand a proud squeeze.
The guest list for the bonfire party had been finalized by an individual call to everyone invited: Meghan and Erin Kilmeade, who had sounded rather confused the entire time, but who both expressed much gratitude; Ruth-Ann; Kathleen Howser, a schoolfriend whom Maggie had never spent much time with outside of a trio with Winnie but whom she recalled in an endearing light; and, a bit resentfully, Sophronia, whom Maggie had thought of as a way to parlay any past antagonism between them, and who accepted the invitation a bit apathetically.
“I was already invited to a party that night,” sighed Sophronia during the call. “Some of Simon’s pals from school are home for a few weeks. But I guess I’ll go to yours. I never know what kind of mischief those boys are going to get themselves into.”
“Okay, great,” replied Maggie, putting cheer into her voice to mask her annoyance. “I’ll see you, then.”
“Mm-hm,” Sophronia said, then ended their call.
Mama, blessedly, stayed out of Maggie’s planning and preparation, allowing Maggie to put together a menu for the night with Mrs. Putnam’s aid and approval: hot apple cider, popping corn, caramels, toasted cheese sandwiches, and coffee with steamed milk.
“A very unsophisticated list, Miss Blaylock,” commented Mrs. Putnam. “I admire the simplicity. I do hope none of your well-to-do friends are disappointed in the lack of decorum.”
“We’re going to be spending most of the night outside by a fire pit,” said Maggie. “I sincerely hope no one is expecting a fancy soiree.”
Mrs. Putnam’s comment made Maggie revisit her original idea to pitch a couple of tents in the yard for them to sleep outside, which had sounded rather appealing in theory but dreadful when she imagined the outcries from Sophronia (and, possibly, the Kilmeade sisters).
Instead, on the afternoon of the party, Maggie set out sleeping pallets and a collection of pillows and quilts on the drawing room floor. Mama was aghast at the notion of Maggie’s guests sprawled on the floor “like a group of hapless vagabonds,” but Maggie herself was thrilled at the thought of a good old-fashioned slumber party, the likes of which she hadn’t experienced since she and Winnie were in high school, and which Victoria had never experienced (“Unless you count sharing a room with twenty other girls of all ages for most of my life who sometimes used to cry themselves to sleep, and then later on with some Sisters who went to sleep before nine and hushed you if you tried to talk,” commented Victoria. Maggie admitted that no, those instances did not count).
Maggie dressed in her new flannels and awaited her guests in foyer, relishing the warmly spiced air, courtesy of the kitchen. Unsurprisingly, the first to arrive were the Kilmeade sisters, who had walked from down the block. Timidly, they presented Maggie with a shoebox full of their mother’s cider donuts, then joined Victoria in the drawing room, carrying along their matching rucksacks. There, they sat on the settee opposite Victoria and whispered between themselves.
Ruth-Ann arrived next, all smiles and cheer, throwing herself at Maggie in an unexpected hug.
“It’s too good to see you again, Maggie,” she mumbled into Maggie’s hair. She then held Maggie by the elbows, shaking them rather forcefully. “I hardly hear from the other girls anymore. I believe this is the first social event I’ve been to in…gosh, I don’t know how long!”
Maggie, caught off guard by this burst of excitement, nodded and said something commonplace and agreeable. She led Ruth-Ann to the drawing room.
“Yoo-hoo!” called a voice from the foyer. All heads turned to the hall, from henceforth came Sophronia, who strode into the room donning a deep red cloak.
“That looks flammable,” commented Victoria.
One of the Kilmeade girls—it was uncertain which—giggled.
Sophronia glanced down at her attire, then lifted her blonde head high. “I beg your pardon?”
“I think Victoria’s just reminding you we’ll be out by a fire,” said Maggie.
“Well, it was an awful way to say it,” pouted Sophronia. “And my clothing is perfectly suitable for a fireside, thank you.”
“She looks like Little Red Riding Hood,” Maggie heard Victoria whisper to the Kilmeade sisters, who chittered. Either Sophronia didn’t hear it or else ignored the jab.
Kathleen arrived last. She made herself at home right away, dropping her overnight bag on the floor and immersing herself in conversation with Ruth-Ann.
For a while they all lingered in that room, as Mrs. Putnam brought them a platter of toasted cheese sandwiches sliced into immaculate little triangles and a silver urn of coffee with a pot of steamed milk. They descended upon the array eagerly and then fell into separate little discussions. Maggie nodded to Ruth-Ann’s story of how she’d gotten her hair curled earlier that day, distracted by the gnawing sounds occurring from the sofa across from her, where Meghan and Erin chewed at their sandwiches like nervous squirrels.
Victoria, meanwhile, spoke with Sophronia; or, rather, Sophronia spoke at Victoria, waving her one hand which bore a glistening gold-banded ruby on one of her pale little fingers, which Victoria could only assume was intentional.
“…of course, Central Park is absolutely breathtaking at this time of year. Surely you can imagine.”
“I can,” replied Victoria.
Sophronia settled back against the sofa, her eyes drifting dreamily toward the ceiling. “I just can’t help but think of how incredible it would be to live so near a magnificent piece of outdoor architecture all year long. All in good time, I suppose.”
The sky grew darker. The party moved outdoors to make their bonfire in the crisp, clear air. The kindling in the tiny pit grew to a steady blaze without any complications, and they set to popping the corn that Mrs. Putnam had left out on a little table nearby. For a few minutes, the only sound that accompanied them was the crackle and spit of the flames and the popping kernels. Once their snacks were ready for consumption and they’d all settled into a chair, the time was ripe for storytelling.
“Let’s tell some ghost stories,” Victoria suggested excitedly.
In the glow of the dancing flames, she saw Sophronia roll her eyes. “Ghosts aren’t real.”
“It doesn’t matter if they’re real or not,” countered Victoria, “they’re fun to talk about.”
“I have one,” piped up Meghan, her eyes round as saucers. It was the first time she’d spoken—besides to her sister—all evening; everyone hushed, eager to hear what she had to say next. This reaction stunned Meghan for a moment, but she blinked and then elaborated. “Our grandmama passed in January—God rest her soul—”
“God rest her soul,” whispered Erin.
“—after a long illness. She was receiving care in our home, of course. Mother won’t stand for those new old folks places. Anyway, the night she died, we both woke up with a start—Erin and I, I mean, we share a room—and our room was cold.”
“So cold,” murmured Erin, with a little shiver.
“We could see our breaths coming out like fog, like we were standing outside. The fire in the fireplace had gone to coals, which usually doesn’t happen so early—it was only around eleven-thirty, I checked the clock. We heard a little rustle, and both looked over to the window, and there was Grandmama, standing there, smiling at us. We didn’t know that she’d died yet, you see, and we were confused about how she managed to get into our room undetected. So I called out to her, ‘Grandmama, is that you? What are you doing?’ and all she did was stare back at us. We were so tired that we fell back asleep in no time, but when we woke up, we both still remembered everything clear as day.”
“Were you scared?” asked Kathleen, who gripped the arms of her chair, wearing a mischievous grin.
Meghan looked to Erin, who shook her head. “No, not very. Anyway, you can imagine our parents’ shock when we told them what we saw. They said it was ridiculous, because there’s no way Grandmama, who had been lame for years, could have done such a thing. And, of course, they never even thought of the idea of Grandmama being…a ghost.”
“My mom says ghosts are the lost souls of hell,” Ruth-Ann said, matter-of-factly. “I’m inclined to agree.”
This comment made Meghan and Erin shrink back into themselves. Maggie burned with annoyance; she didn’t remember Ruth-Ann being so contemptuous.
“We used to have weird things happen all the time at Our Lady of Second Chances,” said Victoria. “That was the orphanage where I lived for a long time. A lot of the kids got ill and a lot of them died—”
“How awful!” gasped Kathleen.
“Yes, it was. A lot of them arrived sickly, though. There was only so much the Sisters could do for them.”
“That doesn’t surprise me much at all,” commented Ruth-Ann. “Catholics are wicked. And they worship idols, like witches.”
Everyone pretended they didn’t hear this. Victoria continued.
“Sometimes, you’d hear laughing or running feet down the hall—and then you’d go to check and see if some kid had gone loose, and there’d never be anyone there.”
Sophronia shrugged. “Kids are good at hiding.”
“And, you know, some children have imaginary friends. But once in a while there’d be someone with a pretend friend that told them things they couldn’t possibly know, like the full name of a child that had once lived at the orphanage, or where someone had been at a particular time, or where that lost shoe was that had gone missing. And speaking of going missing, there were times when things would just disappear—like a toy, or a hairbrush, or something like that. They’d just be missing from where they’d been, and occasionally they’d show up days or even weeks later in the oddest of places, like in the corner of the kitchen or behind a desk.”
“That’s not really that convincing to me,” said Sophronia, picking at her popcorn. “Children play stupid games all the time. You have no idea if some were just pulling a bunch of tricks.”
“I like the idea of a haunted orphanage,” said Kathleen. “It’s like something out of a book.”
“Exactly,” commented Ruth-Ann. “Because it’s nonsense.”
“What a lot of fun you all are,” grumbled Maggie, no longer wanting to hold back her irritation. She rapidly consumed a handful of popcorn to stop herself from speaking any further.
Nobody said anything for a little while. A cacophony of gleeful whoops was heard from somewhere nearby, presumably from the other gathering of the weekend. Then Kathleen leaned forward in her chair with a roguish grin.
“You know about the Jersey Devil?” she taunted.
The Kilmeade sisters shuddered at the proclamation.
“There was a woman who lived once in a wooded area, not too far away from here. She had nine children and swore that if she had any more the devil himself could take it; well, on the night of the birth of her tenth child there was an awful thunderstorm. It was a difficult birth. The woman cursed the child again, pleading for an end to her suffering. But when the baby was born, it hardly resembled a human at all: it was a twisted little creature with leathery wings and the face of a goat and hooved feet. The woman was disgusted. Everyone who looked at it fell sick on sight. They tried to contain the creature, but it fled right up the chimney. And on dark, stormy nights, still to this day, some people swear they can hear the awful wails of the creature as it stalks the forest, unloved and cursed and hideous.”
“It wails?” asked Victoria.
“I forgot to mention that, but yes,” Kathleen clarified. “The Jersey Devil has an awful cry. I’ve heard it sounds like death itself. My brother Joe swears on his life he heard the Devil last summer, while doing lumber work.”
“That’s a perfectly awful story,” commented Meghan.
“It would have been more impressive if it was actually storming,” snarked Sophronia.
“Anyway, I had something weird happen to me that would put all your stories to shame.”
“I thought you said ghosts aren’t real,” Victoria snapped.
“They aren’t,” said Sophronia. “It was a strange experience, that’s all. It doesn’t mean a ‘ghost’ was the cause.”
“Well, what was it, then?” pushed Kathleen.
Sophronia tilted her head aside and swept some hair away from her face, her ruby ring gleaming in the flames. Whether or not she was about to elaborate they wouldn’t discover, because a yelp pierced the air—a decidedly unhuman one, rough and hollow.
“What was that?” gasped Ruth-Ann.
No one had an explanation to offer. Another cry echoed through the darkness, a chilling, unidentifiable noise that baffled Maggie, as she felt that she’d heard something similar before, though she couldn’t recall what it was.
“Come on, girls, ‘fess up,” sighed Sophronia. “Who’s making that awful sound?”
Not a noise was made except for the horrible call.
“Okay, now I admit I’m a little scared,” Kathleen said, picking up her chair and moving it closer to Ruth-Ann.
“It sounds like it’s coming closer,” said Victoria.
“Stop. No, it doesn’t,” Ruth-Ann protested.
But it did—the raspy shouting grew more frequent and louder each time. Everyone moved from their chairs and huddled close to one another in a tiny bundle. The fire had dwindled without anyone noticing; it lagged against the night chill. Maggie’s stomach twisted thinking about her party had fallen apart so quickly.
The yelping paused. Everyone stood with bated breath, too frightened to make a move. Suddenly there was a crash from out of the wooded area and a dark figure came racing towards them. Quick as a wink, the beast tackled Victoria to the earth.
Everyone else jumped aside. The Kilmeade sisters fell into each other’s arms and Erin began to cry.
Kathleen shook. “Oh my God, it’s the Jersey Devil!”
“Kathleen, it’s not the Jersey Devil,” seethed Maggie.
“Stop saying the word ‘devil’!” hissed Meghan, consoling Erin, who collapsed into a wail.
A shuddering cry came from the grass, and Maggie’s heart dropped—until she realized Victoria was laughing.
“I…I think I found Alexander,” managed Victoria, between face licks. She scrambled to her feet, then quickly bent down to retrieve the fox.
“Unbelievable,” breathed Maggie.
Mr. and Mrs. Blaylock, armed with lanterns, rushed to them. Mama’s eyes roved the nervous bunch. “My goodness, what is the matter? What is—is that Alexander?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Victoria bounced the animal on her hip as if it were an infant.
The rest of Maggie’s guests stood slack and silent. The fire was on its last legs. Erin’s sobbing had reduced to tiny sniffles. Shivering abounded.
“It’s gotten so cold out here,” Mama said. “Why don’t you all head inside? Victoria, give Alexander to Mr. Blaylock. We’ll take her next door.”
The fox struggled in the transfer, but the task was done. Mr. and Mrs. Blaylock tramped over to Mrs. Gibson’s, and Maggie’s party shuffled inside.
No one really knew what to do next once they walked in. They dawdled around for a bit, but Maggie’s parents didn’t return. Mrs. Putnam marched out from the kitchen, bewildered at the sight of the group standing around.
“What is the matter with you all?” she scoffed.
Maggie informed her of the situation. Mrs. Putnam’s tired eyes grew wide, and she settled her hands on her hips.
“They’re most likely trying to console that irrational grandmother of yours.” Mrs. Putnam waved at Maggie. “You didn’t hear that from me, by the way. You’re lucky you didn’t cause more of a scene than you did. Now, away with you all. Occupy yourselves or go to sleep. It’s nearly ten. Good night.”
Mrs. Putnam pattered away, and the girls meandered into the drawing room. Someone had lit a fire in the fireplace, so the room had a nice cozy glow already settled in it.
“Oh, I can’t stand just sitting here, doing nothing,” groaned Kathleen. She had slumped herself onto one of the sofas, but she pulled herself to standing. “Why don’t we play a game?”
“What game?” asked Victoria, her eyes alight.
Maggie, who now realized she hadn’t properly thought the night through, felt like an awful hostess; Mama would be appalled. Embarrassed, she remained silent.
“It’s near Halloween—should we play a spooky game?” Sophronia bit her lip. “Maggie, do you have an Ouija board?”
“We will not use an Ouija board,” Meghan nearly shouted.
“No one said you had to,” retorted Sophronia. “The rest of us could, though.”
“No, I don’t have one,” said Maggie.
“Girls, I have an idea,” Ruth-Ann chimed in. “Let’s do that Halloween ritual with the staircase and the mirror—you know which one I’m talking about. You walk down a staircase backward holding a mirror and a candle, and you’re supposed to see the face of your future husband.”
“Oh, God.” Sophronia rolled her eyes. “How childish.”
“Sounds interesting,” piped Erin.
“You won’t play with an Ouija board, but you’ll do that stupid ritual?”
“I think it could be kind of funny,” said Maggie. “I can go get my hand mirror.”
She did. When she returned downstairs, everyone else was gathered eagerly at the bottom of the stairs. Victoria had taken a candle from the drawing room.
“Who’s going first?” asked Maggie. “It’s not going to be me.”
“I will,” volunteered Meghan.
Maggie handed her the mirror and the candle, which Victoria swiftly lit. They all watched Meghan ascend the staircase rather slowly. Once she had reached the very top, unseen behind the curve, she called, “I think I’m ready!”
“Then start!” Maggie shouted back.
“Okay!” was Meghan’s answer. There was a creak—an indication of a sudden movement—and then a few moments of pause. “Just...please make sure I don’t fall, okay? Someone make sure to watch me in case I do!”
“You’re not going to fall!” yelled Sophronia.
Another pause followed, and then, slowly, Meghan began her careful backward descent. The rest of the group stepped aside. It was a funny sight to see the candle’s flame trembling in her hand, Meghan’s wide eyes reflected in the glass. At last, she stepped onto the solid floor, a bit dazed.
“Well?” Erin asked. “What did you see?”
“Nothing but the darkness behind me,” said Meghan with a shrug.
“Yes, and thank God for that, because it would be absolutely ridiculous if you saw anything else,” muttered Sophronia.
“Let me try it,” Ruth-Ann said quite vehemently, tugging the mirror from Meghan’s hand. Meghan passed the candle gently to her, but Ruth-Ann marched upstairs so hurriedly the flame nearly flickered out.
Ruth-Ann’s process was decidedly more impatient; she came down the steps as forcefully as she had been on the way up, her face fixed in conversation. She jumped down the last step and turned to face the girls with a head raised high.
“It’s nonsense,” she determined. “Anyone else want to go?”
Everyone waited in silent curiosity. Erin sneezed. The grandfather clock in the foyer chimed ten o’clock. Finally, Victoria shrugged and said, “I will.”
Victoria took the necessary items in hand and began her climb up the stairs, highly conscious of the stares at her back. When she’d reached the very top, facing the upstairs landing, she took a few more moments to focus her thoughts. She thought she heard the front door creak open, ever so slowly, followed by footsteps. The group below tittered with whispers and muffled laughter. She was about to ask if everything was all right, but since no one sounded especially alarmed, she assumed that Mr. and Mrs. Blaylock had just returned home and took her first step backward.
She took her steps slowly, fixing her attention on the mirror, on the side of her own face illuminated in the little flame of the candle and the blackness beyond. The house was engulfed in a hush; any sounds of Maggie and her guests awaiting in the foyer had stalled completely. She felt uneasy then, like someone was playing a trick on her. She looked down at her feet—she supposed she was more than halfway down at this point—and then carried on, her breath rushing loudly in her ears.
Then, in a flash of the dancing orange flame, there was another face, just beyond hers. She had just barely caught a glimpse of it, hardly having had a moment to process her confusion, when there was a shove from behind—or, rather, someone was shoved onto her—and a peal of shouts and laughter. Victoria and the intruder stumbled over each other on the steps, and her grip on the candle nearly slipped; she felt a warm hand grab her and hold her steady in her struggle, as the jeers continued.
“Are you okay?” asked a familiar voice.
In her disbelief, Victoria waved the candle in the direction of the speaker: it was Simon, standing just a step beneath her, appearing just as befuddled as she was.
“I’m so sorry—they thought it would be funny, to sneak up on you all,” Simon said. “I didn’t think...I wasn’t planning on being pushed.”
“I’m fine; it’s fine,” managed Victoria. For some reason, she couldn’t look at him directly. She started down, nearly stumbling again, still quite shaken. She stepped back into the small group, where Maggie shook her head. Two unfamiliar, grinning faces were amongst them, looking to be about Simon’s age; they pulled Simon down from the staircase, one of them clapping a hand on Simon’s shoulder.
“You girls are too easy to scare,” one of them said, smirking down at Victoria.
“You’d be scared too if someone unexpectedly crashed into you in the darkness,” said Victoria loudly, hoping they heard her irritation.
“Aw, you were playing kid games,” the other strange guest said. “We were just trying to shake things up a little bit.”
Sophronia giggled and stepped next to Simon until they stood arm-to-arm. Victoria peered at them, confused.
“I think it’s time for you to go back to your own little gathering,” Maggie interjected, shooing them away. Neither she nor Simon acknowledged each other. Simon broke away from Sophronia and left trailing behind the other two nameless intruders, mumbling a half-hearted goodbye.
Maggie’s parents had yet to return. The party settled into the drawing room. Maggie poked at the fire as everyone else changed into their nightclothes in the smoky dimness. They all claimed a sleeping pallet except for Sophronia, who had relinquished herself to a sofa. The Kilmeade sisters dragged themselves into a less illuminated area of the room. Victoria bedded down as close to the fire as safely possible, wanting to bask in the heat.
Maggie wondered, as she lay down, if her little party had been successful. She worried that it had not been; she wasn’t entirely sure how she herself felt about the evening’s derailment.
A light snore emanated from the far side of the room; either Meghan or Erin had already fallen asleep.
“It was very nice for Simon and Bobby and Ed to pay us a visit tonight,” said Sophronia, sighing as she turned over on the sofa. Those awake mumbled their agreements, though all but Sophronia weren’t familiar with anyone but Simon.
“Though unexpected,” Sophronia added. “I wish I had looked a little more presentable. “
“It was dark, I doubt anyone cared,” Kathleen said.
“Still, one wants to always look good for certain people.”
Victoria rolled over to face the ceiling, a horrible tightness rising in her chest. “So, Sophronia, I noticed that you have that lovely ring.”
There was a pause. Victoria didn’t peek over at Sophronia, but she ascertained that she was admiring it just now.
“Yes,” Sophronia said, finally.
“I just want to know—who gave it to you? Was it someone we know?”
Sophronia tossed on the sofa. “No.”
“Oh, really? Because the way you’ve been acting, it kind of seemed like someone we know did give it—”
Sophronia sprang up like a jack-in-the-box. “It was a gift from my mother, okay? It wasn’t from Simon; I know that’s what you were getting at.” Her voice caught. “We have seen each other recently, by the way, Simon and I, but we’re not together. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
Victoria didn’t reply. Sophronia tugged a blanket over her head, and the room filled with her soft sobbing. Victoria thought she heard Kathleen mutter, ever so softly, “geez,” but it might have been one of the Kilmeade sisters talking in their sleep.
“Well, good night,” declared Maggie.
“I feel like I missed some of the context of that conversation,” whispered Ruth-Ann. “Can you—”
“Good night,” said Maggie.
Ruth-Ann was effectively hushed. Sophronia sniffled. Kathleen yawned and stretched petitely like a cat, then fell silent.
Victoria lie resolutely awake for a long time, staring vaguely in the direction of the two lumps that were the Kilmeade sisters snuggled in a tiny pile.
“Victoria?” It was Maggie, not quite whispering.
“I’m awake,” Victoria replied, and she sat up.
“Oh, good.” Maggie sighed and arranged herself with her back to the side of the hearth. “I’m not really that tired at all.”
“Yeah,” said Victoria, as if in agreement.
“I can’t believe her,” Maggie whispered, jutting her chin towards the sofa. “What a show-off.”
“So desperate,” Victoria said. “It reflects very poorly on her.”
It was bold of them to speak ill of Sophronia when she lay less than five feet away, but Victoria also felt vindicated.
“Oh, Simon.” Maggie shook her head. “Can you even imagine—them together, I mean? Horrible.”
For some reason, the idea of a relationship, of a marriage, between Simon and Sophronia—between Simon and anyone—hadn’t crossed Victoria’s mind until that moment; it floated in a hazy realm of vague ideas, like the long-forgotten faces of her parents, or purgatory: things that might exist, but she didn’t care to ponder them for too long. It occurred to her that the odd epistolary friendship that she and Simon shared might be inappropriate; after all, if not Sophronia, there were surely other young ladies to factor in. With these thoughts whirring in her brain, Victoria was suddenly very sleepy, as if her mind was willing itself to shut down from any further prying into the matter.
“Can I tell you something?” Victoria asked Maggie, feeling half-asleep.
“Yes. What is it?”
“Never mind...sorry,” Victoria mumbled. “It seems I forgot.”
“Okay,” Maggie said. “Well, if you remember, you can tell me tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, Victoria thought, sounded like a much better time to wonder on and decide upon worrying ideas.
Alexander had gone away to a farm (a real one, Maggie’s parents affirmed, recalling that the same thing had been said about Maggie’s short-lived bunny as a child) a few counties up North. A man there was taking care of him, where there was enough room for Alexander to live and play to her heart’s content, and where Mrs. Gibson might visit her whenever she wished. After the debacle that occurred the night of Maggie’s party, Mr. and Mrs. Blaylock had stayed with Mrs. Gibson, helped restrain Alexander, and convinced Mrs. Gibson to surrender the animal to a more appropriate place.
Mrs. Gibson, a “previous pet owner, and still a widow,” as she now defined herself, according to Mama, was refusing to answer any calls. Maggie wrote her a note that she stuck in the mail slot:
I’m so sorry to hear about Alexander. I know that you adored her. At least she’s still alive. Maybe we can visit her next weekend?
You don’t have to write back. I know you probably won’t. I know you’ll read this though because you’re too nosy not to.
(I’m right, aren’t I?)
Victoria spent her next few days after the party convincing herself to not write Simon any longer. Whenever she thought about doing so, a strange, cold panic rushed through her.
Her commitment was going well until another letter addressed from Our Lady of Second Chances arrived for her. She stared at it, thinking she should probably shove it in the oven and call it a day. Instead, as if it were a forbidden object, Victoria carried the envelope to her room and tucked it away at the very back of her dresser drawer, next to the tissue-wrapped flower. Within the week, two more such envelopes arrived, and in they went with the other one.
After that, there were no more.
© 2022 Angeline Walsh
The Reign of Victoria; or the Year That Everything Changed is a work of fiction. Any resemblances to real persons or events is coincidence. Thank you for respecting the original creation of the author by not reproducing or distributing any part of it in any form without permission.