All the Devil's Greed

“By trying to convince himself I was a devil by nature, my father made me a devil by nurture.”

Mary-Ann Lansfield’s outbursts cause strange happenings in their house, prayers and church visits seem to stir unbearable pain inside her, and her hunger is so insatiable she’s forced to raid the pantry every night just to keep it at bay. It’s no wonder, really, that everyone believes she’s possessed by the Devil.

The more she’s hurt and berated by those around her, the wickeder Mary-Ann feels, and the more she longs for the freedom she’s been denied all her life- the freedom to live however, love whoever, and eat whatever she chooses. Even after everything she’s been told about the evil in the world, what she really wants is to become every inch the monster she’s feared to be.

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Author's note

Hello! I'd just like to stress that this book contains a lot of blood, guts, violence, abuse, and religious themes. My protagonist is extremely morally skewed and her opinions are most definitely not my own. I never killed anyone, honest! Never!
AA

5. Panic

Esther, our new scullery-maid, is either the stupidest woman I know or the most attention-hungry. This morning, without prompt, she started swearing up and down she’d seen rats in the pantry all along. When Florrie came along and told her to tell her the story, fresh from discovering bite marks in the wedges of cheese, Esther insisted she’d actually seen the rats in the cupboards eating the cheese that morning. I nearly snorted and saw Florrie looking at me strangely; then, my parents came around the corner. I hurried back upstairs as fast as I could, before any of them could get a look at my face, tripping twice on the stairs and sobbing at the tightness of my corset. I don’t know why I spent the day crying. After all, Esther’s wild story had distracted them all from being suspicious of me, hadn’t it?

I eventually heard my parents leaving the pantry and going into my father’s study, shutting the door behind them. I heard him shouting at her and her pleading with him, their voices growing louder and louder, for over an hour. When they emerged, they came straight up to their room, passing mine on the way. Mother gave me a look of worry. Father shot me one of triumph.

My hunger is tearing me apart. It is. I can’t bear it any longer- I had to give in and go down for the cheese. It doesn’t matter- even if I did lose the weight, if I fitted all my dresses and expectations perfectly, and even if I started behaving properly, Father would still find a reason to detest me. And the detest would make me ravenous again. At midnight, I go down to the pantry again. My stomach creaks and growls. The sounds grow louder as I near the door. The first thing I notice once I’m safe inside the room is the new locks on all the cupboards.

Panic rears inside me, coming up my throat like bile.

“No.” I murmur, hurrying across the room and sinking to my knees at a cupboard. Curse you, Father. Curse you, Esther. CURSE you both! I try the door, even though I can see it’s locked, and feel how tightly it’s shut. It doesn’t even wiggle. The food’s on the other side. My father has barred it from me. I didn’t think I still needed it all that much, but now that I can’t reach it anymore, I suddenly do. I look around myself wildly- there must be at least one cupboard or drawer that isn’t tightly locked. One. No.

Not a single one.

Oh, no. My heartbeat starts to gallop, faster and faster, and my hands start trembling. “No.” I murmur again, realising I must remain silent if I don’t want to be caught red-handed, and yet somehow not caring enough to force my voice flat. “No! No.”

What am I supposed to do? What is there to calm me down, to make me forget, to take me away? What is there to smother my depravity, to shush my thoughts? I can’t eat. Remembering the larder, I bolt to my feet and run, but as I fling open the door, the fizzing swell of relief is replaced by horror. Every last shelf is empty. Everything has been locked away inside those cupboards.

Father locked the cupboards. Father got tired of the vermin and he locked the cupboards. That’s why Mother looked at me with sympathy- because she knows of my problem, and why Father looked at me with triumph- he was hoping to stop me without having to confront me. Without eating, what will I do? I won’t starve. But I will waste away all the same. I start to panic, running back into the pantry and grasping the lock on a shoulder-height cupboard with all my strength. I pull. I pull. It doesn’t come. Could I break it in half with something? Smash the wooden door?

How could I think of such things? I can’t destroy this room. I can’t make a sound. I sink to my knees in silence. I will simply have to go without.

Upstairs, I hear creaking footsteps. My heartbeat shatters and sick cold floods through me as I clamp my hand over my mouth. I sit in place, knowing there’s nowhere I can run- I wait for the footsteps to come down the stairs, but they don’t.

In fact, now, they’re gone.

I clasp my arms around my stomach and think. Whose footsteps were they? My father’s? My mother’s? Lula’s? Who? And where did they go? Oh, God, I hope they weren’t checking on me. Maybe I was imagining them. It’s not an important matter, but yet I fixate on it- I can’t stop thinking about it. When I panic, everything else stops in place. What if a shadow suddenly appears in that doorway? Walks forwards, becomes my father, grasps me and drags me up and strikes me down? Or melts into dust? I’m afraid to be alone down here no matter who- or what- is awake upstairs. I’m used to hearing strange sounds, but never before have I heard footsteps. And this late at night.

It was a ghost, I decide. This house is, after all, rumoured haunted. One of my earliest memories is of standing at the edge of the square pit that was this house’s foundations, looking at the ocean and babbling to my mother about how beautiful it was going to be. Father was the one who designed it. That day, he was locked in a heated argument with one of the labourers, who was claiming to have found a human skull. I remember seeing it- the way it looked, all brown and crumbly like a piece of tree-bark- and being confused. Then, a few days later, they started finding more and more bones, and the locals would periodically come up and start fights.

Then, on the first day I was living here, I remember telling my mother I’d seen a black shadow walking around in the garden. I don’t remember actually seeing it- just telling Mother- so I most likely made it up. But still, that prompted Father, who was tactless with me even then, to tell me the truth about the house, and why the locals had been so upset over its construction. Our family dream is built over a graveyard of nightmares. A mass burial site for Plague victims. The land was cheap. Even back then, Father was a prude with the money he inherited by marrying Mother.

I never believed in ghosts. Not because I’ve never seen one before, but because everything blends into the background if you ignore it long enough. Nonetheless, Duncan and I used to tell ghost stories to scare each other. His were better than mine.

We’d start off in the dark, always, and he’d hold a candle under his head to distort his face with black and yellow marbled lines. I suppose, looking back, it was supposed to scare me, but I always thought it looked funny. “There is a man at the bottom of the garden,” he used to tell me- and eventually I’d become so familiar with the story that I’d say it along with him- “who was once a normal man like you and me, but taller, and thinner, but after he died of the Plague in olden times, he became blackened by decay and slime and rot. And then, his soul came off his body and walked by itself. Some say he CURSES-“ At this point Duncan would grab me and tickle me, and I’d yell at him to stop- “whoever sees him with bad luck and misfortune. Whoever gazes upon the Plague-man will be doomed to trip on every stair, to embarrass himself at every turn, to feel nothing but shame, and to be unable to pray to God for evermore. He’ll waste away and then, when he finally can waste away no more, the old Plague-man will sink away into the ground, never to be seen again, and the man who released him with a single look all those years ago will take his place. Doomed to wander the garden till a new little girl is so stupid as to look him in the eyes.”

I’d giggle and clap and say “Again!”. Sometimes I’d question the bits of the story I didn’t like, or even rewrite them myself, but I was never afraid. I used to play at being Plague-man myself, running up to people and pointing at them, yelling “I curse you!” until Father told me to stop. I craved that power. I did. The power to doom someone with a single look.

Five minutes or more pass. Nobody comes to the pantry door.

I don’t really know why I’m panicking so much. After all, I’ve had this coming for a long time, and I’m not hungry- not really. Maybe all along, Father has been right. Maybe I need to be stopped, wrangled, kept under control. The joy of rebellion was the only thing spurring me, after all. I don’t need the food. But still, my anger wants it. I crawl over to another cupboard, hoping upon hope that one of the locks was put on badly- I curl my fingers around the silver contraption and start to pull and pull and pull and when it still doesn’t move I snarl out loud, thump my fist into the door. That’s when I hear the larder door slamming.

I jerk up, my heart in my mouth and my blood freezing. I look up at the larder- at the door that’s now closed- but there’s nobody there. My eyes and cheeks are hot, but start to cool. I turn back to the cupboard and keep pulling, because even though I know full well there’s no earthly way I’ll get this lock off, I’m addicted to the effort now and I can’t stop until-

“Mary-Ann?”

Oh, no.

I freeze in place, turning as the footsteps behind me grow closer. No, no, no, go away, I beg inside my head, but to no avail. The voice, thankfully, is Florrie’s.

When I turn, she’s only standing there. I’ve never seen her grey-and-ginger hair loose before now. Her arms are folded across the front of her old threadbare nightgown. She doesn’t look shocked, or frightened, or angry- just knowing and sympathetic.

“Fl-Florrie.” I say, slowly sinking down into a sitting position. “I…”

“Oh, my Lord. I knew it was you.”

“I’m so-” I try to call up the lividity that made me fly into a rage at Duncan all those years ago, but I feel nothing but misery and embarrassment. As I come down from my blind rage, I feel myself starting to cry. “I- I’m so sorry; I- I just feel like I can’t-”

“Ssh. Ssh, child. It’s okay.”

“No it’s not!” I gasp. “I can’t… I can’t control it, Florrie! I want this evil g-gone from me. I want it to stop, but Father has stopped it for me and now I want to- and now I w-want… I can’t stop!”

 This blubbering wretch disgusts me. I don’t know what’s wrong with me- I tell myself I’m lying to fool Florrie, but inwardly I know that’s not entirely true. Whenever I’m alone, I feel strong and defiant, but whenever I’m confronted with sympathy, I lose all my strength. I open my eyes, realising they’re glued together with real tears, my mouth stretched out of shape by a real crying fit, and see Florrie kneeling in front of me. She strokes my hair back from my face.

“Now, now.” She says. “What kind of silly talk is that?”

“It’s… it’s the truth.” I sob. “That’s what’s happening to me.”

“Your Father’s talking a load of claptrap.” She says, and I stare up at her in shock. “Always has done, always will. There’s no evil inside you, Mary-Ann. You’re nothing your Father says you are. He doesn’t value you like he should.”

I shakily breathe in, wishing she’d go away. “I… I…”

I don’t finish. I realise right then that her words make me feel no better- I think I believe her, but it’s not a good thing. Whether the Devil’s inside me or not, the fact remains I’m losing my mind. The idea that I’m doing it to myself scares me far more than the alternative. There is evil in me. And I’m the one keeping it there.

“It’s not true, Mary-Ann.” Florrie strokes my face again. “It’s not true what he says.”

“It may not have been.” I swallow thickly. “But it is coming true, bit by bit, isn’t it?”

“That’s not true. Oh, you poor child.” Florrie shakes her head, taking both my hands in both of hers. I cry harder. She thinks I’ve just been starved to the point of desperation- she thinks I was just down here because I was hungry. “Come on. I’ll make you something, but we’ll have to be quiet.”

I stare up at her. “What?”

She looks down. “I’ll make you something to eat. Lord knows, you need it. I’ve never detested myself for something more than I do for obeying your Father’s orders to near starve you.”

“But I… I’m not starved.” I look down at myself. “I’m so…”

“Oh, hush up.” She says hurriedly. “This is my kitchen. Lord help us if we’re caught.”

Florrie gets up, and I get up too, leaning awkwardly against the counter in my nightdress as I see her leaving the room. She comes back a minute or so later, smiling as she holds something up. It’s a key.

“Here it is.” She says. “I-”

“Where is it kept?”

She looks at me. “In your Father’s study.”

My heart leaps. With it, tomorrow night, I’ll be able to resume my routine. Father will never know. And to think I’ll be stealing his key right from under his nose each and every time. That thought excites me.

“You know where it is, if ever you need it,” Florrie says. “Just try not to ransack us, okay?”

I lick my lips and nod. The nod is a lie, too.

Florrie makes me a sandwich of the cold meats from lunch. I have to force myself to eat it slowly, pretending to care about the way it tastes, as she watches me. People watching me eat is a horrible feeling, but I don’t tell her to leave, as I wish I could. She’s saved me. With her blind kindness, she’s saved me from having to obey my father. As much as I try to chew properly, I still finish the sandwich quickly. I assume I do, anyway, because Florrie ruffles my hair and chuckles when I nervously hand her back the plate.

“You’ve got an appetite on you, Mary-Ann,” she says affectionately. I feel my cheeks burning. “And you’re stealthy as anything. Evaded all of us, didn’t you? You shouldn’t be ashamed of yourself. Just be sure not to wake your father if ever you come down again.”

 

 

I wake the next morning to the sounds of shouting. Clogged with sleep, I sit up and rub my eyes as I try to decipher the words which jolted me away from my dreams. My father- that’s one voice. As always. And the other is my mother’s. I sit in my bed, trying to unstick my parched mouth and wondering whether they’re arguing over me again.

A cupboard door slams.

As Father continues to shout and shout, my blood runs colder. Then, another cupboard door slams- a drawer is torn open, jangling silverware, and then shut again. I jump out of bed. Oh, no. Oh, God, no. I’m suddenly fully awake. I hear another voice now- another woman’s. It’s Florrie.

As I run across my room and fling open the door, the voices flood in and sharpen at the edges. My father’s is loudest.

“Just you wait until my daughter-”

“Don’t bring her into this.” Florrie interrupts.

“Henry, please.” My mother says.

“Don’t you plead with me, Alice.”

I stop at the top of the stairs, one hand over my mouth and the other on the banister, shaking. Lula hurries up the staircase- she puts a hand on my shoulder as I take a step forwards and looks at me seriously.

“Lula, what-”

“Don’t.” She says.

“What…” I start to shake harder as I hear Florrie’s voice again, and Father’s. I haven’t heard him this angry for weeks and weeks. When his voice gets like this I swear he could shake the whole house down. “What- what’s happening?”

Lula opens her mouth, but Father bellows over her. “Then pack them, God damn you, Florence, and GET out of my house!”

My heart freezes. I wrench myself out of Lula’s grasp but she grabs again, just as I’m about to run downstairs.

“Don’t go.” Lula says. Her eyes are full of misery. She flinches when my father next yells. “Don’t go, Mary-Ann. You- you- you’ll only make things worse for poor Florrie.”

“Poor…” I choke out. Florrie- Florrie- can’t be fired. My father can’t have fired her, can he? “Oh, no.”

I start to cry. Lula squeezes my shoulder. I shrug her off. Me. Somehow, I did this.

My mother begs: “Henry, please try to think straight!”

“I AM thinking straight, woman, for the first time in a cursed decade! And I want this disobedient swine out of my house!”

“Henry-”

“Alice, it’s okay.” Florrie interrupts her, softly. I clamp my hand over my mouth and hiccup to stop myself from sobbing. “I’ll go.”

There’s slight pause.

“Yeah, that’s right- get out of my house.”

“There’s no need to be rude, Henry.”

“You will not talk to me like that.”

“I will talk to you however I like, since I no longer work for you.”

There’s a short, sharp pause. Then, my mother yelps my father’s name and Florrie bursts out “Oh, for God’s sake!”

I realise he nearly struck her.

“It’s my fault.” I whisper.

“Don’t be silly, darling.” Lula whispers back.

“I’m not silly. I got her into trouble.” I wrack my brains, trying to think of what we could possibly have done wrong. This must be related to last night. Perhaps we were heard, or Florrie gave herself away this morning.

Lula stays silent. We both listen to the voices downstairs, wondering what’ll be said next.

“May I…” Florrie says softly. “At least be permitted to say goodbye to Mary-Ann?”

My heart jumps. Yes. I think. I must see you. I need to tell you how sorry I am.

“No.” My father’s response is instant, and coarse. It makes me clench my fists. “I’ve learnt my lesson. I’ll never let another kindly sap near my daughter again.”

“That child should be taken away from you, Henry. You’re worse than an unfit father. You’re a damn monster.”

There’s another syllable of silence. Then, Father starts screaming and raging with a sudden escalation of volume that makes me gasp and cover my mouth- my mother and Florrie stop talking completely. Lula and I hear Father storming from the pantry into the kitchen and the thunder of his voice crashes through the pots and pans, making them ring. He’s shouting at the servants in there- all the kitchen staff who were in Florrie’s charge. He’s shouting at them all that they’re fired and to get out of his sight, and I’m so terrified and angry now I could weep. He’s firing them all. Because he’s angry with himself, most likely- but I started it. Florrie and her staff have been with us since I was young. They’ve been with us for more than a decade. How can he just let them all go? I can’t believe what’s happening but I’m hearing it- I’m hearing it all. A few mutters downstairs are cut through by more yelling and he yells, and he yells, and he yells, until they’re all scampering out of the room in fear. For their lives, even. I would be. I am, in fact. I am now.

“God, I’m SICK of it!” he bellows as a dozen of the staff run from him, going to the back staircase and up to their rooms, most likely. “I’m SICK of pretending not to notice my disgusting daughter’s raids on this kitchen and I’m SICK of having NOBODY I CAN TRUST!” An unbelievably loud CRASH of pots and pans is followed by the even louder metallic CLUNK-CLUNK-CLUNK as they all fall to the ground. I look down as the ringing in my ears slowly begins to ease, and see Mother coming up the stairs. She’s climbing with half the usual speed, two feet on each step, staring down at the ground, and she’s still in her nightclothes, her hair down and bedraggled. She doesn’t seem to notice us till she’s standing on the landing right before us. Her eyes widen.

“He’s gone mad.” She declares. I nod, my mouth still pressed to hold back the sobs, even though the racket pulses anger through me in waves.

“Mary-Ann, go to your room.” Mother says.

I stare at her, then set my mouth in defiance. I know she just wants to keep me safe from my father, but if Florrie and her girls had to suffer, then so do I. I want him to attack me, so I can attack him back. I want to hurt him like he hurt them. I want to hurt.No, mother.”

I see her face falling. “Mary-Ann, please.”

“Not until you tell me what happened,” I practically growl. “Tell me what happened.”

“What on Earth do you mean, what happened?” She says, rubbing her forehead.

“I mean what happened to get them all f-fired!” I say, furious. Lula looks at me. “Florrie… all those girls… what did they do? What- what- what… did we do?”

Mother stares at me. Then, she clears her throat. My muscles loosen.

“You left the cupboard open.” Mother says to me softly. “And the plate in the sink.”

I clamp my hand over my mouth and turn back to the staircase as my father comes out of the kitchen and starts bellowing again.

“Lula!” He says. “LULA!”

My heart plummets further still as I look at Lula. She casts her eyes down the staircase in fear as we both realise he’s going to fire her too. No- no. Not Lula too, please. She’s been with me since I was nine.

“Yes, Sir?” Lula calls in a steeled voice.

“Come down here, you dozy swine. This INSTANT!”

“Lula, I’m so sorry.” I say.

She doesn’t reply. She doesn’t even look at me. She just lets go of my arm and hurries down the stairs. Once she’s gone, Mother and I look at each other. Then, as the shouting begins anew, I run towards Mother and wrap my arms tightly around her waist. She stiffens in shock and then returns the hug, stroking my hair and rocking me, and I start to weep into her nightgown. All of this is my fault. The rage boiling in me won’t last. The guilt will, and so will the tears. I want… I want… I just want him to stop.

The shouting dies down.

“Mother?” I say softly. My voice is barely a squeak. She doesn’t respond, so I finish. “Are you angry with me?”

There’s a long silence. Then, as the footsteps downstairs grow quieter, she says, “Yes.”

She hugs me tighter. I clamp my lips, but something in me tells me she’s not angry about what I did. Only that I was reckless enough to get caught.

“Darling, go into your room,” she says.

“No, mother.”

Then, I let go of her as I hear the footsteps coming back towards the staircase. Mother pushes me away. “Go! Now!”

“And WHERE is my DAUGHTER in all of this?” Father roars, starting to run up the stairs. My heart drops into my stomach and I run, hearing Father’s yelling continuing to chase me as I knock open the door to my bedroom and slam it behind me. The fright festers into fury, but I don’t stop running. Father opens my bedroom door just as I slam the one to my bathroom and lock it, tight. I lean against the door and see myself in the mirror, again, my blood fizzing, fizzing, fizzing inside my head. Then, I cry out in fear as he starts to knock on the other side of the door. Not angrily- not pounding and pounding and demanding I open this instant- but politely, his voice poisoned with false sweetness.

“Mary-Ann? I need to talk to you.”

“Go away!”

“You’ll do as I say.”

“No, I won’t!” I’m still weeping. My fear. My anger. My guilt. My greed. My defiance. It lost a dozen people their jobs. It lost Florrie and Lula their jobs. And now Father’s discovered our secret he’ll probably move the key. Or lock it away.  No more eating. No more rebellion. He’s won.

He keeps on knocking, and now he’s asking if I’m okay, if I’m feeling well, if I’m crying. My thoughts rot blacker as I imagine all the things I want to do to him. I want to teach him a lesson. Teach him he can’t throw people away like they’re faulty tools, punish people for kindness. He’s not a man of God; he’s a man who thinks he is God. I imagine what I’d be capable of if he were at my mercy. I wouldn’t forgive- that much is certain. I’d punish. I’m strong, even though right now I’m weeping and sliding halfway down a door. Once I’m sitting down, crying like the tears could drown me, my hands scrabble into my lap and my fingers find a crumb.

I look down and weed the crumb out. It’s from the sandwich Florrie made me last night- the last piece of evidence of my final sin. I roll it between a thumb and a forefinger. Then, I crush it and shriek with a sob, covering my head with my hands. Father’s frantic questions on the other side of the door are joined by Mother’s. I bolt to my feet and see myself in the mirror- red and dappled in my cheeks and nose, pink-eyed and double-chinned with unwashed hair striping me and those huge patches of grease still on the bodice of my nightgown. Greedy. Greedy. Greedy. I sob again and seize the extra flesh about my stomach with an iron grip, digging my fingertips in, digging, digging, digging, like it’ll just peel away. Peel, or rip. I want it off. Off. It’s a sign of my weakness, like a word on my forehead. I dig my fingers into myself harder and let out a gasp of pain. Father does this to me sometimes, but he only prods. He doesn’t tear. I hold my breath and hold it and hold it, my throat tightening, and then let it all out in a half-groan half-sob that turns into a hysterical shriek. “Is this what you WANT from me?” I scream at the voices on the other side of the door.

There’s a long silence. Maybe they’ve gone.

Then, my father’s voice, low as I’ve ever heard it: “Are you aware of what you’ve done?”

“Yes.” I say. There’s a pause. Suddenly, every part of me feels a thousand times hotter, and throbs, solidly, once, twice. I gasp at the twist of pain in my chest. “This is what you want from me, isn’t it?”

He doesn’t reply. Then, as I heat up more, my hysterical anger seizes hold of me and I surge forwards, raising my fists, pretending the door is him. I’m about to slam my hands as hard as I possibly can into it, but then, before I can even cry out, I wake up on the floor covered in broken glass.

The world’s sounds are muffled throbs in my ears.

I lie there for a second, utterly bewildered by the sharp pain all over my body, the acid hotness gridding my skin. Slowly, I push myself up from the ground, as the shredded skin of my arms cries out and weeps in protest, hearing the clatter-clatter-clatter of the glass that was covering me raining to the ground. I break the surface of the ocean of inertia encasing me and begin to hear my parents’ voices for what they truly are- cries of my name. Father’s knocks against the door have turned into hollow, far-apart THUMPS, like he’s trying to break it down.

I sit up and look at my arms, seeing how they’re scribbled and looped and slashed with red, just like my neck, and my chest, and parts of my stomach. I start to tremble as the pain reaches a sickening height. Is this real? Am I seeing things? Am I dreaming?

I get to my feet, noticing that my nightgown glues itself to my legs, impossibly heavy with blood. The blood covers the tiles in perfectly circular droplets, smeared in netlike patterns where my hem drags across it. The mirror, when I turn to glance, is gone from the wall, because it’s in bloody pieces on the ground. But I don’t need a mirror to know the way I must look. What do I do? I feel faint. Why did this happen? How much blood is gone from me? Will I faint? Am I dying? I sway on my feet and clutch the doorknob. I think I’m going to die.

“Mary-Ann?” My father says, and suddenly, my head snaps upwards. “Are you okay?”

My mother whimpers, no doubt worried by my silence. Or perhaps the earlier sound of my mirror smashing, which I have no memory of. I grit my teeth in a foolish grin before I release the lock, open the door, and come face-to-face with my father.

My mother screams, sitting down hard on my bed and covering her mouth with her hands.

“No, Father.” I say.

“Lord.” He mutters. “Lord above.”

It wasn’t the demons, Father. It wasn’t. I just swooned. I just had a fit. I want to insist, but the words never leave my lips. Neither do the words help me, though they’re poised even as I stagger out of the bathroom and collapse into his arms.

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