|The Dark at the Back Stairs
The younger sister confided in the elder, nervously spinning her diamond wedding band on the cloth as the maid removed the luncheon plates and the boy and girl – cousins – sat waiting to be dismissed from the table.
“I think Ezra knows about James,” the younger sister said. “He’s been asking questions. What if he –“
“Let’s walk in the garden,” the elder interrupted, inclining her head in the direction of the children. “We can talk there.”
The two women rose and left the dining room, immediately immersed in the affairs of the younger one, whose long, loose sleeve swept the ring, unnoticed, onto the floor. The boy ducked under the table and retrieved it, holding it up to admire its brilliant sparkle.
The girl frowned. “I already know all about her boyfriend. I wish they’d realize we’re not babies, we understand everything they say.”
The boy shrugged. “Sometimes it’s convenient. Potential blackmail material, you know? Hey, let’s go upstairs.“
The upper floors of the mansion afforded them room to move, run, and play catch with shiny little objects such as overlooked wedding rings. Since no other guests were present, the second floor was unlit and quiet, and the corners of the long gallery were shrouded in shadows.
He pitched the ring over her head. “Catch!”
“No fair!” she cried. “You’ve got to throw it so I have a chance – Damn! Where did it go?”
He laughed. “You swore! I’m telling!”
“Shut up and help me find it. She’ll kill us if it’s lost. I think it went over there.”
She pointed to the end of the hallway, where the back stairs bent off the main gallery. The boy trotted off to search, and was soon invisible in the darkness.
Moments went by. The girl scuffed the carpet nervously. “See anything over there?” she called. “Hey, do you see . . ..“ Boys always make noise, she thought. He should be making noise. She walked toward the shadows, stopping ten feet short of the end of the hallway, suddenly too fearful to go farther.
Footsteps, heavy and slow, sounded on the back stairs. “Where are you, Jason? This isn’t funny. Jason, come back!” she shouted.
Heart pounding, she made out the figure of a strange man, broad and tall, in the shadows. Only maids and guests came up here, and he was neither of those. What is he doing here? She wanted to get away, but found herself rooted to the spot. The man stepped forward, laughter rumbling out of his chest.
He had Jason’s blond, wavy hair and upturned nose, but the creases on his stubbled cheeks were those of a fifty-year-old man, and his hands, which made a grab for her now, were big and hard. His breath reeked of cigarettes and whiskey. She tried to back away, but stumbled over her own feet and fell to the floor. He lunged, seizing her hands and pulling her toward the back stairs. She tried to scream, but breath failed her as she slid down the first two stairs on her belly.
She caught herself and struggled to her feet. In the darkness, his touch had Jason’s familiar damp warmth, and the awful smell of adulthood had vanished, replaced by the slight tang of her cousin’s sweat. Finally she found words again. “Jason, is that you?”
“Who else, dummy? Hey, I found the ring.”
He held it before his face like a glittering monocle. “Your turn.” He scampered up the stairs and out into the gallery.
Still in the darkness, she tried to follow, but her knees resisted and her lower back registered complaint. A sense of heaviness and fatigue arrested her where she stood on the stairs. What is happening to me? Her hands – now twisted, arthritic – rose to her face. Under her eyes she felt dry pouches; beneath her chin was a thick collar of flab. Her entire body was encased in excess flesh whose ailments had lives of their own.
“Where’d you go?” her cousin called, as if from a vast distance.
“Come back,” he added impatiently after a moment.
"I'm trying," she whispered. "I’m really trying."