A warm south wind caressed the fading elegance of the house on the hill and whispered, past the closed and curtained windows, “Emmaline. You’re not dressed.”
“You’re not dressed for your guest.” It was Mother. Her voice – as it always had – slipped like velvet and steel through the blackness of the bedroom. “Wear the white gown, Emmaline. And fix that hair.”
“Mother. That was my –”
“But the wedding never took place, did it?”
“Only because you told Henry I no longer loved him.”
“It was for your own good. He wouldn’t have made a proper husband. Now put on the dress. Your guest will be here soon …” The velvet voice faded, leaving only the touch of cold steel hanging in the stuffy air.
Emmaline Bothers, eighty-six years old, rose obediently in the darkness, brushed her long, gray hair and captured it in a bun, then struggled into the lace-trimmed satin gown, now faded to soft ivory by age. She buttoned the high neck, tugged at the long, tight sleeves – puffed slightly at the shoulders and coming down her thin arms to a point that touched the middle of her veined hands. In defiance, she put on the pearl, teardrop earrings her mother never would have approved of.
Feeling for the cut-crystal vial on the dresser, she daubed a bit of lilac water behind each ear. Satisfied, she laid down again on the unmade bed and dozed.
“He’s here, Emmy.”
“Remember, Emmy? Remember when you were a little girl? I used to say your bedtime prayers with you.”
“I remember Papa.”
“Say them with me now, Emmy. Say them. Now I lay me down to sleep …” The urgency in his voice hung like a frost in the air.
“I pray the Lord my soul to keep,” she recited from memory. But the sad, weak voice of her father was swallowed by the darkness. She was alone once more – as she’d always been when he was around – to await her guest.
Emma woke suddenly – listening, listening, listening over the beating of her heart. He was in the house. She felt his presence as a prickle on the back of her neck that trickled down her spine before settling in her stomach as a paralyzing fear.
“I’m here, Em.” The voice touched her mind with the deceptive softness of distant thunder.
“What do you want?”
“Why, I’ve come to take you to the ball.” Now the softness had the scent of ozone before a lightning strike.
“Have you now.” She chuckled against the fear. “I suppose you’ll look like my Henry.”
“I can, if you’d like. Would it make it easier for you?”
“Perhaps it would, at that. I’ve so many regrets, you know. I never planted those rose bushes, or danced in the moonlight. I never cared for anyone after Henry – not even myself.”
“He was your greatest regret.”
“Yes, I suppose he was.” She sighed.
A slight rustle drew her attention toward the dim outline of the bedroom door. Like a thousand small roaches or, perhaps, butterfly wings. She chose the latter, more comforting image.
He was in the room with her now. A shadow, darker than the darkness. Her chest constricted and her heart pounded with anticipation and dread.
She turned her face toward the windows she’d kept perpetually covered by the heavy velvet curtains. I should have looked out at the moon just once, she thought.
“We can stop by there on our way, Em.”
“Can we, really?” For some reason, the thought amazed her.
He leaned over her then, like a cool, dark mist and a sudden calmness enveloped her. She watched as the long gray fingers reach out to touch her withered breasts under the yellowed, satin bodice and waited for the clutching grip of pain she’d always imagined.
But the touch was gentle. A slight jolt – not unlike static electricity – stopped her beating heart. A small tug and he lifted her from the wizened remains.
She noticed the gown was white now, and the moonlit air was fragrant with lilacs. He extended his elbow like any proper gentleman. “Shall we, Em?”
She inhaled the lilac scented moonlight, smoothed the white gown with her fingers. Then, tucking an errant curl into place, she took his arm.