Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Importance of a Strawberry Tart (Part 4 of 4)

Georgia shoved past the boys and took the stairs two at a time. “Eudora!” she called. She would need help baking more tarts. Eudora’s faint reply drifted down the staircase from the southwest chamber.

As Georgia neared the kitchen, she heard the familiar thwump of the outside door slapping the butter churn, and she froze.

Georgia stood still, her whooshing skirts and leather boots silent for the first time all day, not daring to enter the kitchen alone. Darkness had finally engulfed the house, as the sun had set an hour past, and none of the gas lamps or candles had been lit on the first floor. She felt certain that the Master should be home by now sitting in his study, smoking his tobacco, and dispelling whoever had entered the kitchen with a stern word.

Nervously, she reached into her apron and brought out her tinderbox. She lit the slender piece of wood and watched the fire spark to life in her fingers. Reaching over to light the first lamp, she heard the cupboard doors open and slam shut one by one. Then something smashed against the floor, followed by licking and sucking sounds. The boys must have snuck past her on their silent feet and entered the kitchen. Georgia had hidden one or two tarts in the uppermost shelves of the pantry for her and Eudora to eat later. Furious, Georgia grabbed a thin tallow candle and pushed the door between the kitchen and the back hallway with her shoulder. She burned red with the heat of her blood filling the angry veins in her face.

“I have had about enough of the rules being broken!“ Georgia paused in her diatribe. Though shadows filled the room, there were no children to be found.

Holding the candle high above her head to increase the amount of light that fell on the tile floor, Georgia peered past where the soft light ended. She couldn’t find a boy or girl in the room. A cold stillness found its way into her limbs. A flickering set of blinking eyes scuttled back from the candlelight. When she bent to pick up the pieces of the broken plate, another set pushed past the small circle.

The diners were inside.

Georgia clutched the sharp piece of plate in one hand and held the candle up with the other. The wick flickered, as if to go out from an unseen breeze. Praying she’d make it, Georgia took slow steps backwards to the butter churn. She had to put the piece of broken dish in her pocket to free her hand. She reached out and pushed the door open, hoping the diners would find their way out. She used the birch broom to prop the door wide open. The eyes continued to peer at her, candlelight being reflected back, but she couldn’t see a shape or form in the shadows.

They didn’t approach her as they kept themselves safely out of the circle of light. That’s when Georgia noticed that the tapered candle in her hand had burned down dangerously low. It was meant to light the other candles in the candelabras and gas lamps. She estimated she had a few more minutes before it would burn out and leave her in the darkness with the diners.
Moving away from the open door and taking the light with her, Georgia continued to hold the candle above her head. Her arm ached. She changed hands, all the while wishing the things would leave. When the points of reflected light disappeared, Georgia let out a gasp, not hearing Eudora open the door behind her.

“What are you---“

“Sssh” Georgia hissed. She followed it with a whispered, “the diners are here. In the kitchen. We have to get to the children.”

What she really meant was they needed to get the hell out of the kitchen. The bedtime stories Georgia had been raised on were filled with the diners unending hunger from sunset to sunup on every Tuesday of the year. The Master had confirmed her beliefs and created new ones for Eudora, who wasn’t from this part of the country.

Georgia recalled his words clearly, “The diners were created by Pluto. They were sent to remove all traces of dead things that hadn’t received a proper burial and tribute to him from the land and returned to his realm.”

As Georgia went over the herbs and weapons within arm’s reach, the candle sputtered in her hand and went out. It was followed by the soft call of the whippoorwill. Both girls screamed and ran. The sounds of claws on the polished wooden floor echoed behind them. The door between the kitchen and hallway pushed out or in depending on the need. There was no way to lock or secure it. Georgia heard the soft thump of something hitting the swinging door and hoped they wouldn’t be strong enough to push it all the way open. Then she remembered that she’d left the outside door propped open. Even if the few in the kitchen couldn’t open it, there would be more of the creatures on their heels in no time.

“Cover your hair,” Georgia said, pushing behind Eudora and stuffing a dusting rag into her hand. Eudora’s hair hung in brilliant red curls. Red would attract the diners as quickly as the strawberry tarts.

Eudora tied the filthy rag with shaking hands, messily shoving loose curls under the fabric. She tripped on her skirts and fell face-first onto the second-floor landing. The candlesticks she’d been holding clanged against the floor. Bright blood blossomed on her lip, tears welled in her eyes. Georgia didn’t have enough time to be sympathetic. She simply ripped a piece of cloth from her sleeve and pressed it to Eudora’s bleeding mouth.
When they reached the children’s wing, Georgia discovered that all the lamps had been extinguished. The hallway seemed too long and dusty, like a tomb forgotten by time. She’d never had reason to check on the children after their baths. This was when the Master would go and stay with them for a time, reading from large dusty books while Georgia and Eudora were allowed to eat supper or finish their sewing.

Both girls took time relighting the lamps and turning the gas up all the way. Somehow the sight of long tongues of flame comforted them both. The door to the children’s sleeping room was cracked open. Timidly, Georgia opened the door and almost dropped her candlestick. Tiny pairs of lights turned toward them. The children were not in their beds and the room was in shambles. Somehow the diners had reached this wing before them.

Indicating the attic with her free hand, Georgia backed away from the door. She pulled it closed and slipped the bronze key into the lock, turning it and replacing it back in her pocket. She followed Eudora up the stairs to the attic -- careful not to step in the watery footprints and slip herself -- where at last they were greeted with the bright glow of lamplight. The children stood in the far corner. Belle’s hair dripped, her shoulders trembled with cold or fear. The boys were between her and the stairs. A gash ran along Lionel’s arm from wrist to elbow. A dark stain gathered on his tattered pajama sleeve. Sebastian’s hair stuck up at crazy angles.

“W-w-what are they?” Sebastian managed to say.

Eudora tutted at him and went to attend to Lionel’s wound. Georgia let her. Tonight was one hundred percent the children’s fault. One look at shivering Belle softened her heart only enough before remembering how the girl had encouraged Georgia to pick up the creature earlier. Georgia placed the candle stick on the far dresser table where Belle kept her broken-faced dolls.

She crossed her arms firmly in front of her before she said, “The diners. You enticed them into the house by eating the tarts and the three of you together sealed the deal by raising that raccoon.”

“Those are just st-stories,” murmured Belle, still hiding behind her brothers.

Georgia shrugged. “Can stories frighten children from their beds? Yes.” She gripped Lionel’s badly bandaged arm, wrapping another strip of cloth around it. “But the darker legends speak of how Mars, ever ready to spread torture and pain, instructed the diners in secret to prey upon not only dead things, but the living as well, if we don’t burn hickory in our southwest facing rooms, or place sweet dishes on the edges of our property, but most especially if we harbor dead things in our homes on Tuesdays. The day meant to honor him with its terrible consequences.

“It’s not stories that have cut your brother or have us hiding up here right now. It’s the diners. We’ll have to see if we can outwait them until morning. They seem to fear, or at least avoid, the light.”

Sweeping the room with her eyes, Georgia noticed that the two lamps were in need of oil. Something she or Eudora would have done after supper. The sound of scratching on the stairs to the attic forced all eyes to the small wooden wall that separated the stairs from the rest of the attic. A flash of lightning so intense Georgia had to shield her eyes followed. The thunder that followed rumbled through her, shaking her bones beneath her skin. When she finally looked up the Master’s head, followed by shoulders and body, came into view.

“The house has been cleansed,” he said. The Master looked to be carrying a great weight. Long shadows fell from beneath his eyelids. “I don’t want to know what happened here tonight, only that it will not be repeated.”

The children followed their uncle down the stairs. Georgia watched their shadows in the gaslight. Belle’s seemed to have wings, Lionel tiny horns, and Sebastian definitely had a tail. Before Georgia could say anything, Belle turned to her -- eyes glowing like a cat’s -- and winked.

*******
Join us next Tuesday as Valerie starts off a whole new story with endless possibilities!

*Photo by oceansandcathedrals via Flickr Creative Commons

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Importance of a Strawberry Tart (Part 3 of 4)



Even knowing the children as she did, she was unprepared for the sight that greeted her as she entered the room.

The Master would not be pleased.

Smoke filled the room. It was almost enough to nullify the ghastly odor of the raccoon. Almost. Georgia rubbed her eyes, trying to lessen the sting. “Eudora?”

“Georgia! Oh, thank heavens!”

Georgia lifted her skirts, stepping carefully through the cloud of hickory smoke, lest she step on George and squash the other side of his face. Her stomach twisted at the thought of that milky white eye exploding beneath the weight of her buckled shoe.

“Where are you?” Georgia found her way to the fireplace and opened the chimney damper. She cursed the children silently, blaming Lionel for this latest act of mischief.

“Near the Master’s chair.”

Georgia followed the sound of Eudora’s voice. The smoke was so thick that she didn’t see Eudora or the wingback chair until she stumbled into it, nearly toppling into Eudora’s lap. “Eudora, what happened? Where are the children?”

“The little brutes threw something onto the fire and before I could grab it, the flames took hold and the smoke was so thick I couldn’t see a thing. I was looking for the wash basin to put the fire out.”

Georgia spotted the basin. She tossed its liquid contents onto the lapping flames, extinguishing them. The smoke cleared and Eudora and Georgia both sighed. Now the house not only reeked of death, but the Master’s southwest chamber walls were covered in black soot. Soot on walls was much, much worse than mud on a pinafore.

Georgia, hoping the children hadn’t burned the Master’s private journals, stepped close to the fireplace. A large black pelt, probably from the Master’s own collection of furs, lay atop the charred wood. Had Georgia not been so angry with the children, she would have realized before touching the pelt, that it was the re-animated raccoon. The thing shrieked as Georgia grabbed its tail. She tossed it aside. “Oh, that is it!”

“That is ghastly!” Eudora covered her mouth with the back of her hand and rushed from the room. To fetch another wash basin, Georgia hoped.

Georgia grabbed a linen sack used for laundering and stuffed the raccoon inside. It wriggled somehow still alive. Smoke and the strong scent of burnt hair and flesh seeped from the pores in the fabric. There would be no more addressing the children this afternoon. Georgia saw no point in conversing with the little monsters, as she knew it would do no good. They would simply find more appalling ways to unravel her. Instead, she would focus on her chores which, now with the walls needing to be scrubbed, were going to take every bit of concentration and effort she could muster.

Georgia didn’t know what to do with the raccoon. It seemed cruel to simply toss it out with the kitchen scraps though she was sure the hogs would eat anything, but even crueler to allow it to continue this charade of life. For the time being, she decided to dip the sack in water to cool, and placed it outside the kitchen door on the brick path.

She stood in the doorway a moment, gazing out past the holly bushes. Something moved in the field just beyond. Or had it? She’d never seen them before and had no idea what to look for. She’d never cared to know, as long as they stayed away.

The dark sky made it impossible to estimate the hour. The Master hadn’t returned home so Georgia knew it couldn’t have been later than four o’clock. Many of the strawberry tarts had already been taken, but there were still enough to keep the diners busy until she could rid the house of the smell that George had left behind. It would be hours before she’d have to lay down the next batch.

Eudora promised she’d care for the southwest chamber so long as Georgia tended to the attic and washing the children before diner. Aside from the children, that suited Georgia just fine. There was something about the southwest chamber that didn’t sit well with her. There was always a chill in the room that no hickory wood fire could relieve. The eyes of every painting seemed to watch her. The walls and the wingback chair smelled of the Master’s pipe tobacco long after he’d retired. And then there was the matter of the Master’s private journals. Georgia had more than once wondered what secrets could be revealed with one simple peek between the yellowed pages.

The attic was cleaned in no time at all. One would never have known George ever existed. All that was left to do was burn more sassafras to rid the rest of the house of the smell, and see to the children. Georgia could hear them in the northwest chamber, playing with their toys. She climbed the stairs, drawing deep breaths to steel herself. She wouldn’t scold them about throwing the raccoon in the fire. Not yet. Not until after she’d bathed them. Perhaps not even then.

Do not upset the children. Surely a scolding would upset them, and so close to the Master’s expected time of arrival. She couldn’t risk it. No. Too many rules had been broken for today. It was entirely possible that the children, having had their fun, tossed the raccoon onto the fire in hopes that it would die. This would’ve helped Georgia, had they not also closed the chimney damper, thus filling the room with black smoke.

“Children?” Georgia pushed open the door, bracing herself for the unthinkable.

“Yes, Miss Gaines?” said Sebastian, grinning. Georgia was taken aback by the sudden change in the boy. His hair, always meticulously straightened, was slightly messed. And he’d loosened his tie since she’d seen him in the attic. The others seemed to be their normal selves; Belle with her filthy pinafore and Lionel taunting her with her dolls.

“Uh, it’s time for washing. Belle, you first.” Georgia gestured toward the wash room at the opposite end of the chamber. She had boiled their bath water earlier that afternoon and was certain it would be cooled enough for them.

“Yes, Miss Gaines.” Belle slipped into the room and Georgia followed. Bathing the children was one of her least favorite chores. Georgia had never been uncomfortable with nudity. She’d begun servitude at a young age and had cared for her elderly grandparents before then. But the children’s bodies were different, and not at all pleasant. The precarious relationship Georgia had with them made the intimate act of bathing even more uncomfortable.

Belle removed her outer layers and turned her back to Georgia, silently demanding she remove the laces of her bodice. Georgia tugged and pulled until the bodice came free and fell to the tiled floor.

“Thank you, Miss Gaines,” said Belle with a curt nod. While Belle’s face, chest and arms were pale white, her back, middle and legs, always covered by her dressings, were yellowish and leathery. As if she’d been burned, or stained by her uncle’s pipe tobacco.

“I’ll be just outside,” Georgia said, returning the nod and closing the door to leave Belle to herself. She glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner, noting the time to be near five o’clock. Odd, but fortunate, that the Master had not yet returned. Eudora was no doubt still scrubbing the southwest chamber. Georgia would have to hurry with the baths so that she could replace the circle of tarts before the last one was devoured.

She drew a deep breath. Unable to detect the scent of rot inside the house, Georgia knew there would be no trouble with the tarts. Without the odor of George’s rotten flesh to draw them closer, the tarts would hold them back as they did every Tuesday, so long as the rules were followed.

“Miss Gaines?” asked Sebastian with the same uncharacteristic grin.

“Yes?”

“Just what have you done with George?”

“You needn’t be concerned with the body, Sebastian. I’ve taken care of it.” Georgia grasped her wrist behind her back and leaned against the wash room door. Lionel came to stand beside her. Sebastian stepped in closer.

“It’s not that I’m concerned. It’s just that, well, you see, Lionel and myself, and Belle of course, we can’t exclude her. We were a bit peckish after having our fun with George. I’m afraid we may have eaten all of your strawberry tarts and not saved any for poor George.”

“If you—You what?” Georgia stiffened. The children knew the rules, though they chose not to follow most of them. They had to be pulling tricks on her. Surely they wouldn’t.

“We finished off your pastries.” Sebastian lifted his nose in the air. He drew a breath, pointed teeth slipping out between his lips.

Georgia’s hand flew to her mouth. The smell of decay would draw them in. She had to get to the raccoon before the tarts were gone.


Georgia shoved past the boys and took the stairs two at a time. “Eudora!” she called. She would need help baking more tarts. Eudora’s faint reply drifted down the staircase from the southwest chamber.

As Georgia neared the kitchen, she heard the familiar twump of the outside door slapping the butter churn, and she froze.


*******
Up Next: Part IV by Anne! Tune in on Tuesday for the deliciously creepy conclusion!

*Photo by starrymornings on tumblr

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Importance of a Strawberry Tart (Part 2 of 4)

...as she crested the floor of the attic and saw them gathered around their collection of dolls and toys, she knew she had been too conservative with her concerns.

The children had been doing more than simply playing with dead things.


Much, much more.

The girl, named inexplicably, Belle – inexplicable because she was in no way beautiful, and it’s doubtful she had ever been – spotted Georgia first. Her filthy hands clamped quickly over her mouth, as if she knew it was rude to giggle directly at Georgia, and out of politeness was doing her best to cover it up. Yet, Georgia knew that being rude was but one of many awful things the children found enjoyable. She speculated momentarily about what could have possibly made the girl’s hands so dirty but decided she would rather not to know.

From off to her left, Sebastian spoke, his voice calm and polite. “Hello, Georgia.”

Georgia jumped ever-so-slightly despite her best efforts to remain unruffled. Of the three children, it was quiet, serious Sebastian, who always kept his blazer and short pants meticulously clean, and who never, ever smiled, that made Georgia the most unsettled. So unsettled that she did not correct him, nor request that he please address her as “Miss Gaines”, despite her fervent desire to appear professional at all times.

Georgia turned to him with what she hoped was an agreeable expression. “Hello, Sebastian.”

Sebastian nodded at her, his face deceptively impassive. “Pleasant day, isn’t it?”

Georgia listened to the rain pelting the roof and wondered what it was about the day that Sebastian found pleasant. Best not to ask questions. “Yes, quite.”

From the corner of her eye, she could see Lionel’s shoulders shake with silent laughter. Oh how they loved to play with her nerves. Almost as much as they loved to play with dead things. Especially Lionel, who was the most troublesome. Large and boisterous, he stood nearly as tall as Georgia herself and seemed to take the most pleasure in wreaking havoc within the household.

Georgia surveyed her charges, taking great pains not to glance down at the monstrosity on the floor between them, the scent of which seemed to get stronger the longer she stood near it rather than dissipating over time as it usually did.

The children looked nothing alike. Thin, angular Belle, with her pale blonde hair and even paler skin. Messy Lionel, tall and brutish, with a shock of bright red hair and freckles to match. And Sebastian, his brown hair always neatly combed, his demeanor always courteous and yet she could sense a quiet menace underneath. He had a way of making soft-spoken and well-mannered exceptionally disconcerting. It made Georgia feel off-balance, like everything around the children was tilted precariously to one side. She had to maneuver around them carefully.

It was only when the children opened their mouths that one could see the family resemblance in their sharp, jagged teeth. An unfortunate family curse, was how the Master explained it, but Georgia had her doubts.

At times, late at night, when she lie awake listening to the peculiar sounds coming from the children’s wing, Georgia wasn’t even certain they were children at all.

A horrid keening arose from the floor and Georgia knew it was time to face the reason she had come. The thing she’d been steadfastly avoiding since she’d caught a glimpse of it as she entered the room. She straightened her shoulders and took a furtive deep breath to prepare herself for the sight of the children’s latest plaything. But when her eyes rested on the offending creature it was her knees that threatened to give out. She was immensely grateful that she had not eaten any of the strawberry tarts.

On the floor, far too close to the hem of her dress, sat a mud-covered raccoon. But it wasn’t the mud that distressed her so. No, a muddy floor could be cleaned easily enough. What Georgia found most upsetting was that while the animal was most certainly dead – as evidenced by the way one side of its head was squashed flat, and the walnut-sized hole in its chest – it was also very much alive.

“Oh,” she gasped. Just as the raccoon tilted it’s crushed face up at her and shrieked. It had only one milk-glazed eye.

Belle cooed affectionately and petted the matted fur on the creature’s back.

“Do you like him?” asked Sebastian. “We’ve decided to call him George, after you.”

Georgia could only nod her head yes, afraid that opening her mouth to speak might allow other things to spill out and betray her controlled fa├žade.

The raccoon scrambled forward and clutched at her skirt. Belle giggled. “He likes you, too.”

Georgia took a step back, tugging her skirt from the dead-but-alive thing’s grasp before she remembered herself and stilled. She smoothed her hair.

“There’s no need to be rude,” Belle said, picking up George and cuddling him to her like a baby. His mud-caked fur left streaks down her pinafore. Streaks, Georgia thought, that she would spend hours scrubbing out. Lionel began to laugh uproariously.

“Right. Sorry.” Georgia pursed her lips as she shifted her gaze away from the raccoon and attempted to maintain her composure.

Well. This put a considerable wrinkle in Georgia’s plan. Had the raccoon simply been dead, she could insist the children follow the rules and remove it from the house. But this was something else entirely. Georgia ran through the Master’s rules in her mind. The raccoon was dead, but also alive. Would the Master consider this a breach or not? He had never explicitly said not to reanimate dead things. Did reanimation fall into the category of play? If it did, then surely the children had broken the rule.

Georgia considered the Master’s fourth rule – the unspoken one. Do not upset the children.

If she took the hideous thing away and the children went to the Master and complained, and it was decided that the children had not in fact broken the rule, the Master might ask her to leave.

Heat flooded Georgia’s face and neck. Butterflies took wing in her stomach. She would not let these children be her undoing.

The children watched Georgia in eerie silence, their strange, dark eyes, amused. It felt as though they were scratching at the door to her mind, trying to break in.

Georgia turned her attention to the attic window, which stood open, letting the stench out into the fields and beyond. She refused to allow herself to think about what the children might have done to pour life inside a body that should not be able to hold it. There would be time for that later, after the chores were done and the Master had retired for the evening. First, she must work out what to do about George.

It was just as Georgia was coming to realize that the rain-filled silence was too quiet that she heard the scream. Eudora. A glance around the attic confirmed her suspicions. She was alone. The children had slipped out while she mused. It was unnatural the way they could move so quickly and noiselessly when they wanted to.

Eudora screamed again, and the sound was one full of terror. Georgia took the steps down from the attic two by two, careful not to trip on her skirts, and followed the scent of death to the southwest chamber. Even knowing the children as she did, she was unprepared for the sight that greeted her as she entered the room.

The Master would not be pleased.

*******
Up next: Part 3 by Lacey. Tune in on Tuesday to see how the story unfolds!


Photo by CrazedChefCook via Flickr Creative Commons

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Importance of a Strawberry Tart (Part 1 of 4)

The children had been playing with dead things again, which was only distressing because it was a Tuesday.

It was hard to mistake the smell and harder still to pull its sticky fingers from the walls and the dark red fabric of the Master’s wing back chair. Even the shallowest of sniffs was laced with the sweet decay of oranges and the heavy scent of rot. Such an occurrence would have been acceptable on a Thursday or a Friday or even on a Saturday, but it was distinctly out of place on a Tuesday afternoon.

Sliding her knife through the thin layer of pastry covering her countertop, Georgia Gaines made a quick resolution not to concern herself with such annoyances until her tarts were in the oven. The smell of dead things could be attended to easily enough, but she was in no hurry to address the children.

She had placed her last tray of tarts in the oven when the kitchen door knocked into the old butter churn. The butter churn, having often received the door, amplified the collision with a deep and hollow thwump

“Georgia! I can smell it clear out to the street!” Eudora Pullisard tossed an umbrella to the floor, showering the wall with October rain, before she turned in a quick circle to push the door closed again. “The neighbors will smell it soon enough. Do I need to remind you what day it is?”

“Don’t be hysterical,” Georgia spoke briskly as she balanced tarts on her cooling rack, staggered in rows of twelve each with bits of strawberry preserve gleaming just beneath the flaky pastry. She’d have been tempted to try one, but she’d long since tired of tarts. “Be useful if you’re going to be anything at all.”

There was a rustle of fabric as Eudora shimmied out of her rain jacket. It was easy to imagine the bounce of her curls. Even damp, they would bounce.

“Fine. No hysterics, but if he comes home and the house smells like this, there will be You Know What to pay.”

“More than a strawberry tart, that’s for sure,” Georgia said, reaching for the poplar wood platter tucked away on the highest shelf in the cabinet, her voice level as the plains.
“I’ll get the sassafras.” Eudora darted around the corner and into the pantry, and while she piled her arms with dried sassafras, vervain and rosemary, Georgia loaded her tray with the coolest of the tarts.

Eudora wrinkled her nose as she slipped back into her already damp rain jacket, but she voiced no complaint as she followed Georgia through the side door. Together, they followed the old brick path to the edge of the property while a light rain glazed their shoulders and toes. Eudora moved with greater haste than Georgia, though she took care not to get too far ahead of her companion.

At the end of the path, they stopped. The wind came out of the north as they lit Eudora’s bundle of herbs. The flame shuddered and she cupped one hand around it, and cooed gently as if it were a frightened animal or child.

The girls circled the house three times, leaving a trail of fragrant smoke and tarts as they did every Tuesday. None of the tarts from the previous Tuesday ever remained and that was all as it should be.

Georgia placed her final tart in the wet grass and looked into the browning field that crept ever closer to the house. Others would not have dared so long a look, but Georgia stared right through the holly bushes that squatted sharply at the edge of the field. Eudora shivered at her side as she whispered a quiet prayer that their offering would appease.

Then, satisfied that the neighbors would no longer detect the scent of rot in the air, she turned back to the house.

“H-have you seen them?” Eudora held her bundle away from her face. She brushed at the air before her, but smoke drifted lazily around, heedless of her attempts to direct it. Her red curls shone like embers in the gray mist.

Georgia shook her head and brushed crumbs from her poplar platter. “But there’s no point in delaying the inevitable. Come on.”

The children were very likely tucked away in one of the attic rooms playing with their toys and whatever ripe, unsavory object they’d managed to snatch. Georgia hadn’t seen them leave the house this morning, but they were exceptionally sneaky. The Master, for the most part, was understanding of such happenings as long as his rules were given the respect they deserved.

There weren’t many of them and they only needed to be followed on Tuesdays: bake strawberry tarts, light a hickory wood fire in the southwest chamber no later than 4 o’clock, don’t play with dead things.

The children had trouble with the last once every few months and often dissembled with wide, dark eyes, claiming dead things found their way into the attic without their having noticed. What were they to do if dead things were attracted to their tea parties?

But it was the way they said it, with the edges of their sharp teeth sliding out from beneath their smiles and with the tips of their long fingers itching at the air, that turned stomachs. Eudora stopped speaking with the children quite soon after they’d arrived seven months ago, which left Georgia to see that the rules were observed. As this was her first professional posting, and a prestigious one for someone newly turned eighteen, she was loathe to let anything upset the Master.

She’d climbed the dusty old stairway to the attic many times in the past months and considered her relationship with the children steady if not predictable. They seemed to quite enjoy watching her pick apart their lightly woven fictions, even if she never discovered the truth that lay somewhere beneath them.

Tuesdays, however, were no day for such fallacious adventures and Georgia strode up the brick path and directly through the kitchen with the intention of demanding compliance with the Master’s rules in short order. Eudora did not follow and that was just as well because the house had many rooms in need of sassafras smoke. There would be nothing to do about the scent falling in great waves from the attic until the offending source was gone.

At the door to the attic stairway, Georgia paused. It would be better to have been armed with a sack or bit of cloth in which she could wrap whatever it was they were keeping up there, but there was no time to waste. The Master would be home soon and the strawberry tarts would already be attracting diners. Every remaining minute was precious.

Georgia placed one hand over her nose and opened the door. The first breath was the worst. She could taste it in the back of her throat, rot and decay, but she didn’t choke. After two, three, four breaths, she removed her hand from her face and began to make her way up the narrow staircase. She had no intention of showing the children how easy it was to make her uncomfortable and it was only a smell, after all. With each step, she recalled her favorite scents: clove, apples, lilies, and pine.

The children were giggling above. One started and the others joined, the sound tripped down the bowed wooden stairs toward her. Georgia tried to tell herself that it meant nothing. Children, and especially these children, frequently giggled when they knew they’d done something wrong, but as she crested the floor of the attic and saw them gathered around their collection of dolls and toys, she knew she had been too conservative with her concerns.

The children had been doing more than simply playing with dead things.

*******
Up next: Part II by Valerie. Tune in on Tuesday to see how the story unfolds!


*Photo by Ann@74 via Flickr Creative Commons

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