Chapter 1: 1954
Charlotte was always firm in her ways. I’d ask her questions again and again, but her answers were always the same. Her words never changed and neither did she.
I used to move her plastic arms into various poses and swap her dress to one of a different colour, but that never changed her. She was always Charlotte – for good and for bad.
Gran had Charlotte before me. She said she always remembered the Christmas she got her, how happy she was then. She also said that from that day on they were inseparable, but Gran isn’t here any more, and Charlotte is.
Charlotte retained her eternal good looks while Gran’s hair turned white and wrinkles cloaked her eyes, making them look permanently happy. Charlotte’s hair was still a light golden colour, like the stitched-in thread on Mother’s best dress. Her eyes remained a clear, piercing blue; nothing like what I remembered of Gran’s watery eyes.
‘Cynthia?’ Mother peeked her head out from behind the front door. ‘Do play somewhere safer than the front steps,’ she chided. Upon seeing me sitting guiltily on the steps with Charlotte in one hand and one of Mother’s pink tulips dangling from the other, she let out a long sigh. ‘And stay out of the flowerpots,’ she added.
I nodded. I hadn’t meant to make Mother sad. Charlotte had told me that the tulip would go well with her dress, so I’d picked it for her. I hadn’t really thought about what I was doing.
‘So are you eating at Judy’s tonight and then staying over?’ Mother asked.
I nodded again, mumbling agreement.
‘I’ll pick you up in the morning, then. Or will Judy’s mother drop you off? Or you could walk. After all, it’s only a block away and you are eleven years old,’ she said. As she disappeared back into the house, I heard her mumble, ‘Where did you come from? When I was your age, I certainly wasn’t playing with dolls.’
‘I’m bringing Charlotte,’ I said to no one, and my voice carried on the breeze.
The mailman’s white truck drove up in front of our house. He only got out briefly to place a package at the foot of the steps before getting into his truck again and driving away. He didn’t stop to notice me or Charlotte, but that was normal.
I hopped down the steps with Charlotte swinging from my arms, wondering what Mother had bought this time. Was it one of those pretty dresses she loved so much – the ones that made her look so beautiful?
When I picked up the package, I realized it was addressed to one of the houses on the other side of the street, not our house at all. It was the house across from ours, and I set the package down for Mother to deliver later.
Then I remembered how mad Mother had looked when she saw in my hand the tulip Charlotte had told me to pick. I grabbed the package again – it was only across the street and I was eleven already. All I had to do was ring the doorbell and put the package down. I could be a grown-up like Mother. Maybe then she would forget about the tulip.
I placed Charlotte down on the bottom step with care so she sat looking out towards the house on the other side of the street; I wanted her to be able to see me, and know that I’d be coming right back. I took a deep breath before bravely making my way across the street with the package. I placed it in front of the door and raised my hand to ring the doorbell, but before I could press the button, the door swung open.
A petite young woman stood framed at the threshold. She wasn’t as young as my friend Judy’s older sister, but she didn’t look as old as my mother. She was wearing a cream-coloured sundress; her dark hair was pinned up, and it contrasted with her light dress in a way that made me gasp. I thought she looked like the angel from the postcard my mother kept taped on our refrigerator in the kitchen.
We both took our time examining every inch of each other while waiting for one of us to break the silence.
‘Well.’ The woman sighed as she finally picked up the package. ‘What have we here?’ Her voice was hushed for someone who looked so young and vibrant. Not frail, but as though she restrained it on purpose.
Her words put me on the spot and my breath caught in my throat. The lady looked down at me with kind eyes, trying to break my silence as she stated the obvious. ‘So you brought me a package?’
I nodded, still not trusting my voice.
‘You live across the street, don’t you?’ she asked, pointing to my house. I nodded again. ‘Well, I just moved in a few weeks ago and still don’t have many friends.’ She sent a comforting smile in my direction.
I remembered the day she moved in. Mother was talking to her friends on the phone about our new neighbour. She baked a lemon pound cake that morning as a welcome gift, and took it with her when she went with her friends to greet our new neighbour. I watched from the window while they rang the doorbell and waited for a reply. They must have waited at least fifteen minutes, ringing several times but receiving no answer. Finally they gave up and left the pound cake by the door. When they came back in, they talked about how she must not have been home. But we’d all seen her enter the house that morning, and none of us had seen her leave.
‘That Miss Hatfield ... she doesn’t appear to be the social type, does she?’ I overheard my mother saying once over the phone. Yet here the young woman stood, looking anything but antisocial.
‘Won’t you come in?’ Miss Hatfield asked. ‘I just made some fresh lemonade,’ she added when I hesitated.
Given her friendly tone, I couldn’t bring myself to say no. Mother always told me not to talk to strangers, except when she introduced me to them. Then it was a different matter altogether and I needed to talk more, or else they might think I wasn’t brought up properly. I knew I should be heading to Judy’s house soon, but told myself this wouldn’t take long.
I followed the lady through the doorway and into her home. I passed a grand old staircase that looked out of place in her untidy house. The banister wound up to the next floor and was draped with dust covers.
‘I’m sorry my house is in such disarray – there’s so much still to do!’ she apologized. I looked at the mess around me and couldn’t have agreed more, but kept my thoughts to myself.
She led me into a room she called the parlour and told me to have a seat while she fetched the lemonade and some cookies. I chose to settle into an old oversized couch while wondering if its atrocious colour was pea-green or cooked- celery-green. I decided that it most resembled the colour of the overcooked peas Mother served on Sundays, but all thoughts vanished when I actually sat down and realized that the couch looked far more comfortable than it actually was.
The other furniture in the room didn’t appear to match the couch at all. Every piece was a different colour and texture, but the one thing they had in common was that all the pieces were what Mother would call ‘outdated’. I supposed that was just a grown-up way of saying old, but I felt the word fit the room well. All the objects in the room, including the furniture, looked as if they’d been placed rather randomly in an antique store.
The walls were covered with maroon paisley wallpaper, which was peeling off in chunks. In some areas the colour was faded; in others it was stained with a harsh yellow that seemed to have bloomed with age. The coffee table in front of the couch where I was seated was actually an old steamer trunk made of dark aged leather – nothing like the couch or the wallpaper at all. It appeared to be from a much later time, and looked more modern than all the other objects and decorations in the room, despite the fact that it had obviously been well used. The trunk was a strange height; too short to eat from, yet too tall to have a conversation over once you were sitting down. Two chairs stood opposite the bright couch. One was covered with red velvet, but the other was stern-looking, made of a light-coloured wood with nothing to decorate it. The wall I was facing was dotted with ancient black- and-white photographs and dusty miniature paintings of people dressed in funny outfits. There was a photo of a stout man in a black bowler hat with his arm around a horse’s neck; another portrait showed a woman with her hair piled up elaborately on top of her head. She was wearing a high-collared dress and appeared to be staring directly at me. All the other walls were empty.
The photos and paintings gave off an eerie feeling that made me uneasy. There was something wrong about all of those faces looking at me, but I just couldn’t place my finger on why they made me feel so uncomfortable.
My thoughts were disrupted by a loud crash that sounded like glass shattering. The noise shocked me, and I involun- tarily jerked up to a standing position. My head whipped towards the heart of the house, where the sound appeared to have come from.
I crept out of the mismatched parlour and walked deeper into the house. I felt like I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to. When I exited the parlour, I found myself in a hallway cluttered with boxes, no doubt from Miss Hatfield’s recent move. Two doors stood on each side of me and one large looming door ahead. No paintings or photographs decorated this hallway, unlike that one odd wall in the parlour. Of course, Miss Hatfield hadn’t had time to unpack everything yet.
Hearing someone humming, I chose the door to my left, hoping to find Miss Hatfield. It opened into a room that only just resembled a kitchen. Like the hallway, it was buried beneath packing boxes with half-unwrapped plates and Christmas ornaments spilling out of them, as well as a good deal of additional mismatched furniture. But there was a stove and refrigerator in the corner.
Miss Hatfield was indeed there and, as I’d expected, she was the source of the humming.
‘I–I heard something break,’ I started. ‘Uh, I hope every- thing’s okay.’ I had no idea what I was supposed to say. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing here but had no choice except to stay, at least until after I’d shared some of her lemonade. It was only polite to do so, after having been invited into someone’s house ... at least, that’s what Mother always told me.
‘Oh, everything’s fine. I was just warming up a batch of cookies I made this morning.’ She smiled at me, looking up just briefly enough to wipe a stray lock of hair out of her eyes. Then she stepped over the remnants of a broken plate and reached into the outdated orange refrigerator for a pitcher of lemonade, which she set on the counter. ‘Why wouldn’t everything be all right?’ I detected an underlying tone of hardness in her voice and shivered, but perhaps I only imagined it. ‘I hope you like chocolate chip cookies, but in case you don’t, I warmed some oatmeal ones, too.’
‘Oh, I love chocolate chip.’
‘They’re my favourite too.’ Miss Hatfield smiled. ‘I can tell we’ll be good friends. Why don’t you help me bring the cookies and lemonade to the table?’ She paused. ‘There’s no need to be formal. We can just eat in the kitchen if that’s fine with you.’
I watched her place the cookies on a large plate decorated with big pink flowers. They were nothing like my mother’s prize-winning peonies, which always took second place at the county fair, unmatched save for Mrs Blackwell’s chrysanthemums. I didn’t recognize these flowers. They had large centres that engulfed their petals, and their buds and blossoms were entwined, circling and looping around like vines. Each tried to outdo the other in beauty, and when they failed at that, they tried to do so in strength. It looked to me as if each bloom was
trying to suffocate its neighbour before it became the one that was suffocated.
‘Of course, Miss Hatfield.’ The young woman froze and turned to look at me. She set the plate of cookies on the table, and took a few steps closer to me. I stood my ground, but every muscle in my body was telling me to flee.
‘You know my name?’ she asked, stretching her words out to form elongated syllables. It was all I could do to wordlessly nod, but then I got a grip on myself.
‘M–my mother mentioned it when she came to visit you ...’ I said, my voice cracking and making my words sound like a question.
‘Ah, yes,’ Miss Hatfield whispered, putting me a bit more at ease. She sat in front of me. ‘With her friends, am I right?’
I nodded again. I found it strange that she knew my mother had come with her friends. After all, she hadn’t answered the door or even acknowledged their visit. How did she know?
‘Such a silly group of girls,’ she went on to say, though my mother and her society friends were far older than Miss Hatfield. ‘They think they’re so important just because they claim to be.’
‘You know them?’ I said, finding my voice again.
‘Know them? I—’ Miss Hatfield stopped, although I thought she was about to add something more.
‘Miss Hatfield! Let’s dispense with that right away. Please, call me Rebecca. I look over my shoulder for someone else when people call me Miss Hatfield.’
‘Rebecca,’ I corrected myself. I felt strange calling an adult – much less a stranger – by her first name. ‘What do you know of my mother and her friends?’ For some
reason, I was curious to find out what she’d been about to say but didn’t.
‘I know enough of them,’ she said cryptically.
I thought her evasive answer was odd, but didn’t go overboard worrying about it. I reasoned it was probably just the kind of person she was. Most likely she didn’t have anything to hide – why would she?
Miss Hatfield (as I continued to call her in my mind) suddenly stood up, knocking over the plate of cookies in front of her. In an effort to save them, I felt my body lunge forwards in sync with Miss Hatfield’s. For a second we were the same person, reaching out for the same goal, but when the plate shattered on the floor and splintered into unrecognizable pieces, the moment fled.
I saw Miss Hatfield close her eyes for an extended second, and then she went about clearing up the broken shards without another word. Her actions looked a bit too jerky and tense to be natural, but again, it didn’t feel like much to be concerned with at the time.
‘There go our cookies, and another one of my plates,’ she said, more to herself than to me. ‘At least we still have our lemonade.’
Miss Hatfield was pouring a glass of lemonade when my eyes were drawn to a golden clock hanging on the kitchen wall. I was surprised I hadn’t noticed it before. It was such a vibrant golden colour that it outshone every- thing else in the room. The clock looked like an over- sized pocket watch – the kind you need to wind up every morning like Gran used to have – except this one hung on a wall. It was circular like most clocks, but there was something different about this one. It had three hands, for the seconds, the minutes and the hours. But although the number of hours on the clock was the same as on every
other, there appeared to be only half as many minutes marked as on a regular clock.
‘The clock ...’ I frowned. I realized that the hand that should have been measuring seconds was moving abnor- mally slowly. I also wasn’t sure what it was pointing to. There appeared to be a second series of dashes that were outside of the normal marks for minutes and hours that I was used to seeing on a clock.
‘Ah, so you’ve noticed my pride and joy?’ Miss Hatfield’s voice drew my attention from the peculiar clock. ‘It’s my favourite thing out of pretty much everything here.’ She moved over to where I was standing. ‘It’s mesmerizing, isn’t it?’ she asked, lifting it away from the wall and turning the dials on the back, causing the hands to move. Suddenly Miss Hatfield felt overwhelmingly close to me – too close for comfort. Luckily, however, she soon went back to the lemonade, while I stood frozen in my spot by the golden clock. I noticed a tiny inscription I was sure hadn’t been there before, or at least I didn’t think it had. The letters were too small for me to read. I assumed it was the name of the clockmaker.
‘Um ... Miss Hatfield?’ I called.
‘Rebecca,’ she corrected.
‘Rebecca, I think the time on the clock is wrong.’ ‘Oh, it’s no matter. I’ll fix it later.’
Miss Hatfield finished pouring the second lemonade
from the heavy-looking glass pitcher. She stood on her toes to reach into a wooden cupboard above the counter and pulled out an empty vial, careful not to knock anything over this time. The vial was made of thick glass, worn smooth and flat in some areas. It was supposed to be clear glass, but the dust from the cupboard made it a smoky colour. She held the vial up to the light, turning it this way and that. I was tempted to tell her it was empty, but
she appeared satisfied with whatever she saw inside. She unscrewed the top and held the vial completely upside down over one of the glasses. I didn’t know what she was waiting for until one lone drop plopped in.
‘Well, that’s that,’ Miss Hatfield mumbled to herself. ‘It’s all gone now.’ She tossed the glass vial into the trash, seeming to not give it another thought. ‘Here’s your lemonade,’ she said, handing me the glass into which she’d dispensed the drop.
My hand rose automatically to take the glass from her, but froze just in time. A range of thoughts went through my head, but none was as clear as this one: What did she put into my glass? Was it poison? Did she mean to kill me with it? Why me?
Miss Hatfield chuckled. ‘Do you think I just put poison into your glass?’ she asked, as if she knew exactly what I was thinking. ‘You can rest assured that’s not the case; far from it, in fact. Besides, why would I slip poison into your glass in plain sight, with you obviously watching? It’s just a little addition to make the lemonade taste ... better.’
I realized she had a point and took the glass from her.
‘To a lasting friendship,’ Miss Hatfield toasted. A thought crept into my mind. Should I ask exactly what Miss Hatfield had added to my drink? I shook my head free of that thought. I didn’t want to look childish. Besides, Mother always told me that only children ask useless ques- tions and we should leave everything up to the adults.
I clinked my glass with Miss Hatfield’s as I’d seen adults do frequently, and downed the lemonade as she did the same with hers. The drink tasted like lemonade was supposed to, and why shouldn’t it? I felt silly for having doubted her and worse for imagining her to be some kind of murderess. Of course she wasn’t.
‘I want us to be good friends,’ Miss Hatfield said once we’d emptied our glasses. She sat at the table in front of me. ‘You can tell me anything you wish, and in turn you can ask me anything.’
And so I did. I told her what I knew; my mother, my father, my teacher and my friends. I told her about Judy, at whose house I was supposed to be soon, to which she replied, ‘Pish-posh.’
Miss Hatfield listened attentively to me, as if she wasn’t an adult at all, but rather someone of my own age. She asked all the smart questions – the ones most adults call silly and pointless. When I told her about the presents I’d received for Christmas, she asked me how many and which was my favourite, not the total cost of them like Judy’s mother had. But when it came time for me to ask questions about her, nothing came to mind.
‘Surely there must be something pressing upon your mind that you want to ask me? Anything at all?’ She smiled encouragingly.
I thought hard, but still I drew a blank.
‘Maybe something about my house?’ she persisted. ‘Did you perhaps wonder about the antiques I have here?’
I responded that, in fact, I had. ‘I especially like the portraits you have hanging in your parlour,’ I found myself saying, though I really just found them creepy.
‘Oh, thank you. I’ve been collecting them over the years.’
I nodded, waiting for her to direct the conversation. She continued, ‘I have some other pictures of people I think you’d like even more. Do you want to see them?’ Miss Hatfield asked as she stood up.
‘Yes, I’d like that.’
I followed Miss Hatfield back to the parlour, where she crouched in front of the pea-green couch and unbuckled
the steamer trunk. The heavy lid fell open in a flurry of dust, but once that cleared I could see stacks of photo albums inside – some older than the furniture around us and some brand new, as if they’d just been bought yesterday. Miss Hatfield shuffled through a stack of albums until she came to the one she sought, which was covered with pink lace and frills. It looked like a baby photo album – one of the ones that proudly declare It’s a girl! on the cover to anyone who cared to notice.
As Miss Hatfield flipped through the album, her fingers lingering on its pages, I saw that it contained pictures of a mother and a father, and of a baby who grew as the pages of the album progressed.
‘Where did you get this from?’ My voice caught oddly in my throat, coming out sounding raspy. I couldn’t breathe and wanted to run away, but somehow I couldn’t make myself move from the couch.
‘What do you mean? You don’t think I stole this, do you? This is mine,’ she insisted.
I felt myself shaking my head from side to side in disbelief. ‘That can’t be,’ I muttered. ‘That baby ... is me.’ I was certain of it. The photos were of my mother and father and me. They showed me from all angles, but I was never once looking at the camera. Some had been taken through windows; others which were magnified had obvi- ously been taken from across the street. I saw a picture of my parents walking me to my first day of school, but I didn’t see their faces. Whoever took these photos did so
without being noticed.
I flipped to the last page of the album. There was only
one picture in the last slot; it was of me eating breakfast at home. I looked at what I was wearing and what I was eating. The picture had been taken yesterday.
My hands shook, the light pages of the photo album rustling with the tremors. I kept my eyes down as I tried to think of what I should do. I didn’t dare trust my voice, but neither could I remain silent. I forced myself to look up into the distant eyes of the woman next to me.
‘Who are you?’