“She appears composed, so she is, I suppose,
Who can really tell?
She shows no emotion at all,
Stares into space like a dead china doll.”
—Elliott Smith, Waltz #2
The string quartet played a slow, sad waltz that pinned my heart against a moment and then pirouetted day and night around it. All the couples dancing in the pavilion under the tent-pole canopy and me, and Will, who held me close as we swayed together, turning. Red and yellow lanterns strung above us dusted our eyes with the gauzy glow of artificial sunset. Some of them shifted in a breeze that promised rain.
How much Champagne had I guzzled down already? Servers dressed in domino white and black, hands gloved in black, held out round trays crowded with tall, slim Champagne flutes. As soon as I had finished one, it was replaced.
I hadn’t been here for long before Will found me. He took my hand and we were swept along with other couples heading to the pavilion where there was dancing. Wordlessly we fell in with the music. Turning and turning slowly, so close to him.
Just a few nights before, at the White Mask show, we had kissed. Afterwards he drove me home, or really it was Hank the security guard and occasional chauffeur who drove us back to Park Heights in one of the Severands’ beautiful black Mercedes. And then Will had walked me up to the front door of my house. There, we kissed again, deeply, lingering for a long time this time, losing ourselves.
I hadn’t seen him or spoken to him after that. Not until I arrived here, at Arcyn, for this fundraiser gala which Linna had themed and named. Nightfall.
It was some party. The Severands had clearly spared no expense in creating something extraordinary. It was Park Heights’ event of the year and I was happy to have been invited.
I drove up in the late afternoon, thinking I’d be early, but there was already a line-up of cars through the front gate out to Summit Drive. When I finally got onto the grounds, parking attendants escorted me in and helped me park the Roadmaster in the lot just inside the gate. A small fleet of golf carts spray-painted entirely matte black awaited us, and took the guests up the path toward the mansion and the event. I was unsteady in high heels and my mom’s tight dress, holding onto a stupid little handbag in one hand—my iPhone was in it, and some cash, and my driver’s license—and I had to scooch sideways into the back of the golf cart, my knees pressed together to maintain decency. Then we were on our way. I noticed for the first time that the road up to the house made a wide curve around a small woods of tangled trees. There was probably a more direct path through the trees from the parking lot to the mansion.
The road split into its circle around the imposing marble fountain—I saw that the central cherub had been wrapped in black linens, making it wraithlike, even sinister—and here was where the golf cart stopped, giving me time to inch my way over on the seat and then spill out.
People were everywhere. I immediately noticed the masked and costumed celebrities among the crowd, remembering that Linna had told me there would be a kind of silent auction on their identities, all proceeds going to the Wellness Centre. Everyone was stopping to observe these masked figures when they passed by, trying to glean a clue that would give them away.
There were pavilions arrayed all over the grounds between the fountain and the mansion. In one massive tent it looked a sit-down dinner was underway at a long banquet table arrayed with rows of guests; in another tent, people came and went from a serve-yourself buffet. I seemed to find my way directly to the pavilion with the bar. I showed a tuxedoed maitre d' my invitation and he cross-checked my name on the VIP list before handing me a black wristband. The bartender then handed me the first of many free glasses of Champagne.
The front of the great house itself, Arcyn, was being used as a canvas for a light-show projected across its facade. I stood for a while, sipping Champagne, mesmerized by the rise and fall of the chiaroscuro collage. Arcs and intersections of bright white and bold black unfolded atop the architecture, flattening out the alcoves and gables and open windows that accessed the darkened house interior.
Music from one of the pavilions drew me closer. And then suddenly Will was there. Like a medieval courtier he gently lifted my hand up from my side and kissed the back of it. It made me laugh. I reached up and straightened the black and gray silk tie that complimented a perfectly-tailored charcoal-gray pinstripe suit.
We went hand in hand into the pavilion. And then we slow-danced to the string quartet.
Will and me. What did I think I was doing? I was halfway to convincing myself that something meaningful, something lasting, had begun with us. Did I want it as much as it seemed like I did, as much as I was going along with it? I was being lifted up, pulled along, carried away. I think it was just that, the possibility of being swept away into something new. That was what I wanted.
Linna. I saw that she was there; she’d been there for a while, watching us. The music slowed and stopped and Linna came up to us. She put one hand on Will’s shoulder and the other hand on mine. Her fingers on my bare skin were ice cold.
“You two,” she said.
“Linna, you look incredible,” I said without hesitation. And she did. She was wearing an ink-black and dove-gray ‘20s-era flapper dress that was like a vision of Daisy from The Great Gatsby summoned out of imagination into reality. Her lipstick was bright red; her half-up, half-down hair had never looked more golden-blond; exaggerated indigo eyeshadow brought out her eyes. “And you’re wearing contacts,” I said. “Your eyes are so blue!”
“Oh,” she said indifferently. “Part of the show, I guess. But enough about me. You, Tess. It’s just like I said. There’s no-one here even close to you, Tess.”
It was my turn to shrug. Truthfully I didn’t exactly feel like a stunner. The dress wasn’t comfortable at all. I felt like I’d left myself at home.
Will cleared his throat. “Linna’s right. You’re really something.”
“How articulate,” Linna said sharply to her brother. Then she yanked him closer so that the two of them stood facing me. I have to admit it gave me a pause, seeing them suddenly side by side. I had been stopping myself from seeing Linna’s features in Will’s face, but here they were, unmistakable, one in the other—this push and pull of seeing them apart and then together was unsettling.
Linna said to him, “I’m stealing you away, Will.”
He sighed. “Are you going to tell me why?”
“There’s someone here I want you to meet.” Then she said to me, “I’ll give him back to you in a bit, Tess, if that’s alright.”
It was at that moment I realized what had been bothering me about Linna. Her blue eyes. I couldn’t be completely sure, but I also couldn’t shake the thought that she had somehow made the color of her eyes as close as possible to the color of mine. Maybe exactly the same color.
As if she knew what I was thinking, Linna broke her gaze away from mine and pulled Will away from the pavilion, out onto the grass. Will waved at me with a helpless, hapless look as they went out from under the lanterns and into the early evening’s waning light.
“I think I need another drink!” I said aloud to no-one. After a few more Champagnes maybe I’d be able to talk to Linna about these weird things she’d been doing. The red blouse; her blue eyes.
As I turned around to find my way back to the bar pavilion, I bumped right into Mona Wrightson and Jerilene Davis.
“Hey guys,” I said to them, “both of you look great!” The three of us exchanged awkward, rapid hugs, not really touching, all of us held back by the masochistic constraints of all this formal wear.
Mona had an expression on her face that was hilarious, a literal jaw-dropped look of shock. “Tess! You’re unbelievable.”
Jerilene had a different expression. “I didn’t know you were so friendly with those Severand kids,” she said.
“It’s kind of a new thing.”
Mona was stuck on my appearance. “You know, Tess, you really do look a lot like….”
“My mom,” I finished. “Yeah this is one of her old dresses.”
Jerilene asked, “Is she here tonight?”
“No, I don’t think so. These kinds of things aren’t great for her. All these people. You know.” I wanted to change the subject. “How much trouble have you guys been up to?”
Mona and Jerilene frowned in almost exactly the same way. Mona said, “Nobody seems to care that I brought the Director of the Arts Nexus. Normally it would make all these rich Wellness Centre people put up their dukes, but I think they’re too pleased with themselves. It’s quite the night.”
Jerilene said, “It’s all kind of over the top, though, don’t you think?”
I laughed. “I guess the Wellness Centre is lucky that Devin Hanlon knows the Severands.”
“We should be so lucky,” she said, scowling. “In fact we’re going to have to do something like this, ourselves. All our Federal funding’s been taken away. Not that anyone’s surprised, but it hurts regardless.”
I promised Jerilene to help her with anything she needed in the future with the Arts Nexus. Then she and Mona decided to move on and explore the grounds. I was left on my own again.
More and more people had been arriving at Arcyn since I’d been dancing with Will. Everywhere there was the sound of murmuring and laughter and the echoes of conversations; the clink of crystal Champagne flutes; the rustle of gowns, tuxedos; the pointed staccato percussion of high heels and dress shoes on the flagstone paths that crossed the estate between fountain and mansion.
Another masked “celebrity” passed by right in front of me, bedecked in a genuinely beautiful costume of a swan, iridescent onyx-feathered wings rising from the waist on either side. It was difficult to tell, beneath an elaborate Venetian Carnivale mask with a downward swooping beak, if the person was even male or female. The black swan stopped and bowed its elegant head to me. I’m not sure why but in response I clumsily executed the best curtsy I could think of, a kind of half-throttled debutante Texas Dip. I thought I heard laughter from the swan that was strangely familiar.
After that, I wandered. I came to a table out in the open near the east wing of the mansion on which there were a number of metal buckets heaped with ice and bottles of beer. I helped myself.
All at once the chubby figure of Kevin Cho resolved itself out of the crowd, headed towards me. He was laboring under a heavy load of sound tech gear piled high in his arms and he didn’t even see me until I stepped into his path and took a few of the bundles of cables from the top of his stack, my little handbag pressed under one arm.
“Tess you’re the best,” he said breathlessly. “You haven’t seen Tryst by any chance, have you? I can’t find them anywhere. They should have been here by now.”
“I don’t even know what they look like,” I said.
“Can you bring those mic cables with you to the stage?”
“There’s a stage?”
He shook his head. “Just follow me.”
There was in fact a small stage set up on the other side of the mansion, away from all of the pavilions. Scaffolding rose up from it on three sides and a whole array of klieg lights were shedding gelled colors across the stage itself and the stretch of grass beyond. At the moment a DJ was spinning mellow, vague triphop dance music and a few groups of younger-looking guests were dancing half-heartedly here and there, in and out of ovals of blue and violet light.
Kevin roughly dumped all the gear behind the stage, took the cable from me, threw it down on the heap. Looked at all of it disgustedly as if it was a knot of coiled wet snakes.
“Do you need any help?” I asked him, laughing a little.
“No, don’t worry about it. If these guys don’t even show up then I’ve brought all this shit out here for nothing.”
“They’re musicians, right? They’re probably at the bar.”
He nodded. “That’s a good call. Did I say you’re the best? Because you are.” And he rushed off without another word.
I took a moment there behind the stage and had a few mighty swigs from the beer bottle I had managed to hold onto while carrying the cables. I needed to make a decision. Either I had to stop drinking for the rest of the night, after this last beer, or just go ahead and have a dozen more.
I walked on my own. I was a little miffed that Kevin had just left me there. Or no, maybe I was annoyed that he hadn’t commented on my appearance like everyone else had. And then I was annoyed at myself for being annoyed about something like that.
There was an open door. Out here in the east wing of the mansion. Strange. I stopped and turned and peered into a hallway that seemed to lead deeper inside the house. I had a thought that maybe there were cool things going on within Arcyn that might be worth seeing. So I went in.
It was immediately so much quieter inside. I realized that I’d been in this hallway before—Linna had taken me down it in the opposite direction, from the main entrance to the library, that first night that I’d met her and driven her home. And in the library I’d met Will for the first time. There were a large number of other rooms along this hallway. All of them seemed to be closed to the public. I was beginning to think that the house itself was actually maybe off-limits and I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. There was a strange weight I could feel, a pressure in the atmosphere that was making me dizzy, that tilted the frames of the locked doors I walked past, one by one.
And then another door was open. Again I stopped. I turned. I looked.
There was a small room, some kind of reading room, low-ceilinged and square like the inside of a box. In one corner a standing lamp with a translucent jade shade cast low green light across the floorboards. High mahogany bookshelves ran along the walls, left and right. A high-backed, ornate, antique ottoman faced the wall opposite from the door where, in an ash-streaked brick fireplace, blue flames licked across charred black logs, throwing wavering shadows that leaped out in all directions.
I turned to go. I thought about tiptoeing away. Something didn’t feel right. Time to go back to the party.
Someone stood up from the ottoman.
It terrified me in a way I didn’t have words for. I could have sworn the room had been empty.
It was a woman. She came around the side of the ottoman. She had hair as black as mine and it flowed down the side of her white evening gown and trailed onto the floor behind her bare feet. She was tall and full-figured and the room was filled with her presence. I stood pressed down and unable to move as she approached me. I knew it was a trick of the inconstant light from the fireplace and the green glow of the lamp behind her that made her into a silhouette, but it seemed a lot like her eyes, from pupil to sclera, were entirely midnight-black.
“Oh you’re quite lovely,” she said, “if a little too thin.” Her voice was much deeper than I had expected and it had an unplaceable accent that lent it unsettling musicality. I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure what to say. Then the woman raised her right hand slightly toward me. “You may speak,” she said.
Words came, welling up involuntarily. “Thank you for the compliment,” I said, hearing a strange genteel lilt in my voice that wasn’t my own.
“And who are you?”
“My name is Tess Bellamy.”
“Ah. I see. Why don’t you sit with me in front of the fire?”
I blinked and we were seated together on the ottoman. She was on my left. The length of her shining black hair seemed to move, lift, shift in a breeze that wasn’t there. I couldn’t look at her directly.
I felt very drunk. It had come over me so suddenly. I was losing moments.
“No, I don’t think you have the strength you need,” the woman said. Her voice was mellifluous, entrancing, yet there was no kindness in it: only certainty. “You won’t be enough, before everything is over.”
“What do you mean? Strength for what?” I realized that she was holding my right hand tightly within both of hers. I wanted to pull away but I knew I couldn’t do it.
“Is it because of your father?”
“What?” A tremor passed through me. “What did you say?”
“You’ve held yourself back, lovely girl,” the woman said, “because you don’t know who your father is. You think it matters knowing who he is. You believe there is a part of you that has yet to be defined, and that this part of you belongs to your father.”
“I don’t…” I said, stammering, “don’t know… no… you’re wrong….”
“You can forgive yourself,” the woman said, “if you want to. It’s not your fault that your destiny is limited by weakness. You have this in common with everyone.”
Then I heard Will’s voice breaking across the woman’s words. He stood in the doorway. “What are you doing down here?” He sounded so far away. The distance between the doorway and the ottoman filled me with despair.
The woman answered him. “I was bored.”
“You have to go back upstairs.”
“I met someone.”
Will came into the room. “Oh my god, no, Tess.” He was at my side. He was lifting me up and I struggled to stand.
“Our conversation wasn’t finished,” the woman said.
Will and I crossed the room and he pushed me through the door and held me there by my shoulders, out of the room, in the hallway, as some strength returned to my legs. I was shaking. I felt cool air streaming down the corridor from outside the house and I took it in, gasping.
“Tess, you have to go,” Will said. “You have to get out of here, now.”
“Come… with me,” I said with difficulty. I could hear my speech slurring.
Will’s voice surged with an anger I didn’t understand. “Leave now, Tess. Go!”
I didn’t want to go without him. I was bewildered. Disoriented. What was happening here? “No,” I said weakly.
He lifted his hand. It came across.
He slapped me hard and my head snapped to one side.
“Get out of here right now Tess—I’m not fucking around!”
I turned and started down the hall. My face was burning. After just a few steps I slipped off my heels and broke into a run. As I came to the end of the corridor I looked back. Will was watching me go. His fists were clenched. Finally he turned away and went into the reading room.
Then I was outside. The air was stinging, cold. My eyes were wet. I blinked and two thick tears spilled out to run down my cheeks, one and then another.
I had to leave. All I knew was that I had to leave this place.
I stumbled forward, then found my footing as I pushed myself on. I couldn’t see the people around me, the guests at the party. All I could see were shapes looming closer then falling back.
That woman in the reading room. It hurt to even think about her. I couldn’t remember what she had said to me even though it all happened only moments ago. Everything became indistinct as soon I had left that room.
And Will. Why had he been like that? Why had he been so angry? He slapped me. He fucking slapped me.
It was over.
I was done.
Fuck these people. These Severands. Whoever, whatever they were.
I had made my way through the gathering dusk around the outskirts of the party. I had come to the edge of the woods that were in between the manicured grounds of the estate and the parking lot by the front gate, where my car was. Still holding my heels in one hand. Somehow still clutching my tiny handbag in the other.
Time to go back to my life, back to myself.
I slipped into the woods. It was beautiful under the trees. Already my head was clearing.
It felt like I was escaping something terrible, something I’d stumbled on by accident, something I wasn’t supposed to know about or begin to understand.
I smiled, despite everything.
I’d be able to see where I was going. There was still some light left in the sky.
© 2017 by C.D. Miller