The tiny silver hand seemed to sweep too slowly around the face of Susan’s watch; she looked up from the earrings laid out between her elbows into the dressing table mirror, popping her jaw. The black straps of her dress kept sliding from her shoulders and she tugged the neckline down to keep them in place, then decided that the result was too revealing, picking up the hairspray can to add another dose of lacquer to the pinned-up style she had already begun to regret. Philip had effected the shade of willow-pattern blue she had requested but the alteration sat uneasily in her reflection. She chose tiny diamond drops and pushed them through her ears.
The bed legs groaned across the floorboards as she dragged them toward the windows, pushing the frame beneath them with her knees and kneeling upon the mattress to lean out over the sill, toward the casement William had patched for her. The breeze sweeping upward from the wall fluttered the thin silk velvet of her dress against her body; with her hand on the latch she held herself in grim, determined stasis until fear lost its grip and fell away, allowing her to gaze down at the ground with a word in praise of her own fortitude. Still smiling, she stooped for her shoes on her way toward the door.
William stood in the hall before the line of picture windows, watching the hot white face of a three-quarter moon through the tallest branches. The solemnity of the suit that he had peculated from his brother's collection surprised her; she stared at it as she walked past him, pausing, then sitting down on the chair that had escaped the disused room. Her reaction perturbed him, persisting as he came to her and knelt to fasten the straps on her shoes, his hands conferring a small cascade of incidental pleasures that distracted her momentarily.
"Like I'm here to collect the body of your great uncle?" he proposed, grimacing slightly. "I don't know about this get up... it's always Halloween for Kala'amātya..."
"Be quiet... I’m trying to think of the word.” she told him. "You look lovely, actually." She lowered her head and her voice together, looking down at her toes as they wriggled in her shoes. "Too lovely." He glanced up but she shook her head with her eyes screwed closed. "I can't... I mean..." She brought her hands to her mouth. "It would be bestiality...wouldn't it?"
“Oh... you mean... oh. If you like...”
“It’s not funny!” Susan insisted, putting out her foot again. “The left one’s still loose.” To her relief the demanded amendment removed his gaze toward the ground. He smoothed the silver-shot stocking down over her ankle, the sensation annulling her rebuttal, and his hands ascended and closed on her velvet-clad rump, drawing it toward him over the seat. The silken lining of her dress slid beneath her as her knees parted wide on either side of him, her protestations falling spineless and propitiated. The sight of him so close made her blood lurch in the darkness of her vessels, flushing through her chest and burning in its empty spaces as though she had held her breath too long.
“Christabel, this is the woods, we are all animals, and that is all there ever is.” he told her, taking her hand and pressing it to the side of his throat, where her fingers settled, sensing the slow, eccentric cadence sounded by the chambers of his heart, a variant of her own, the rhythm that underscored all discourse. He bent to kiss the eider-soft slope of her neck and the warm swell of her cheek, the quiet colour of her eyes disappearing beneath their lids under the influence of his impalpable curare, so subtly narcotic that she wondered if he had been devised by some opprobrious authority to stamp a face on sin. Her hands opened on his shoulders and came together at his nape, bringing his mouth to hers before some conflicting notion intervened. He felt and tasted as he looked, cool and lunar, faintly honeyed, inviting so much more that she forgot herself and wound her arms and legs around him. Opening her eyes, she saw that his were closed, his artlessness chastising her. Susan let him go and sat back slowly.
“We should go...” she smiled, belying her own suggestion by unbuttoning his shirt. “I mean... to this thing...” She wiped her pink gloss gently from his mouth, her own lips parting as her thumb slid between his teeth, exclaiming softly at her own immodesty. "We could... no. We should just go. I think I used too much hairspray.”
“Your hair is making my hair jealous.” William assured her. She glanced down at her cleavage, tugging at the bra that rode too high beneath the velvet and pinched beneath her arms; reaching back, she swore, loosed the catch and shucked it off, pulling it from the neck of her dress and throwing it away along the hall. Susan consulted her reflection in the window pane, then his expression, his wide-eyed, blinking smile mutely applauding the measure.
"Come on." she insisted, striding away down the hall.
Edward watched his phone ring unanswered in his hand, and slid it back into his jacket, feeling his own perverse resolve transforming into a regret of far greater mass. None of the dubious interlopers of his worst expectation had showed their faces, though the night was still emerging from its infancy. Not even the addicts and alcoholics in the invited crowd had begun to exhibit the behaviours for which the small but determined corps of paparazzi loitering outside were patiently waiting, kept from the gallery entrance by an equally dedicated phalanx of security. Leighton Sotherby-Aldrich stared at him like a laboratory monkey sucking on the bars of its cage, her shallow breath drawn past an abolished overbite.
“I’m not allowed any pets but I did have an alpaca... I came home from school last summer and he was gone... no one'll tell me what happened. I asked the maids and they won't say... they know, though...” she murmured, shrinking again inside her gaily-hued, single-shouldered gown. “I guess you’ve never lost anyone you cared about. Some people are lucky. You probably have a really pretty girlfriend waiting for you.” The idea seemed to at once depress and console her.
Lilian stood before the rack that housed her working wardrobe, her black crocodile suitcase lying open on Edward's bed, patient and empty. Together the two objects stood against her intention to decamp and declared it token. Too many of her belongings had found a home for her to effect the cauterised departure of her desires; with both arms she pulled her clothes from the stand and dropped them onto the case, where they slid away amid their plastic garment bags and lay like loose, discarded skins.
The scarlet counterpane was cool beneath her cheek as she knelt and lay her head and shoulders on the bed, reminded of its owner even in an absence still notionally preferable to his presence. The sunless heat and enslaving duress of their engagements mocked her like a scourge, limned in black-lit detail when she closed her eyes. With his voice still in her head her hand pushed down between her legs but found no welcome; so completely had he come to embody physical exaction that the thought of administering it herself had degraded into counterfeit. Her phone flashed again on the beside table, throwing gentian light against the wall, and she turned her face from it, Edward’s tortious resolve, both in refusal and pursuit, heaping stones on her desire to leave and lighting flames under the need to stay.
Seeking a path between the two, she rose and made for William’s rooms. In his black coat she found the turquoise capsules that he had kept from her the night before and turned the heavy garment upside down, shaking it until the thud of his silver zippo and the flutter of a small packet of foil came to rest on the carpet at her feet.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe