My fingers sank into the globs of melted wax. I hissed and yanked them back, sucking on them before spitting out the white flakes. The candles were as fat as my leg, their flames bright and flickering. I caught my image in the silver-framed mirror propped behind the candles, my skin pale except for the purple circles beneath my eyes.
“Level two burn. Why don’t you cry, Penny? You look like you’re going to cry.” The girl in the mirror made a face at me, my mouth tightening into a little bud while I tilted my head down so my hazel eyes were enormous. The light reflected dimly on the layers of pitch-what I called the black substance of flame resistant potion that coated my hair. Pitch was for irony.
Revere knocked on the door. Thud, thud. I knew it was Revere because no one else knocked.
The girl in the mirror closed her eyes and for a second I stood there, my fingers throbbing. Finally, I exhaled and spun around, marching my heavy black boots across the old wood floor, avoiding the uneven gaps between the boards.
I threw open the door and stared at my stepfather lean, mean, housekeeping machine. “What do you want?”
He raised a black eyebrow. “Are you packed yet?”
I crossed my arms over my chest and smiled at him, my nastiest smile. “The only way I’m leaving here is in a coffin.”
“That could be arranged.”
I scowled at him and shook my head tightly. “I don’t care about Grandmama’s will. I’m not going to Rosebush, academy for wealthy brats.”
He raised his other eyebrow while his black eyes narrowed. “Penny, every year you had a choice whether to spend that year or the next at Rosewood Academy, and every year you’ve deferred. This is your last opportunity to go. If you do not attend Rosewood and do not find a peer to marry, you will be cut out of the will along with your mother. This house will be demolished and the land donated to…”
“I know. Parks and Recreation so people can go camping on the bones of our ancestors. Why? Why would Grandmama do something that evil?”
His lips went thin while he stared at me flatly. “It’s almost as though she knew how difficult you would be. If you aren’t packed with your own things then you won’t have them. If you send trunks ahead of time they will be at the school when you arrive.”
I shook my head. “I don’t care. Let them come and tear down the old lady.” I kicked the door and dust puffed up. “She’s lived past her prime.”
The rafters of the attic creaked like ‘the old lady’ heard me. Revere cleared his throat. “I suppose you wouldn’t mind working somewhere like the local Walmart or as a telemarketer calling people on the phone during dinner.”
“I have work already.”
“Your little shop online selling lotion, yes, Penny, but what about your mother?”
I chewed my thumb savagely while I glared at Revere. “Why should I care about someone who never cared about me?”
He smiled slightly. “If that’s your choice, I’ll let her know.”
“Wait!” I grabbed his shoulder, holding him back before he left the landing at the top of the long winding stairs. “You know what she’ll say.”
He glanced back at me, his gaze calculating. “She will tell the same story she always tells about a girl who chose to keep her unborn child instead of her own life, her own freedom, a child she’s struggled to make any other responsible choices for in the past seventeen years. Of course, she’ll mention that she married me to take the place of your father and give you the opportunities she never had. She’ll also declare that she will never leave this house even if the walls come down around her, burying her alive.”
I glared at the floor of the landing, like it was the house’s fault that my mother hadn’t left since I was five. “Do you think she’ll really do it?”
“I don’t think that she can leave, Penny. The accident left her broken.” His expression almost showed emotion, but it vanished quickly.
I ripped off the skin of my thumb so hard that it started bleeding and I pressed it into my black skirt while I glared at Revere. “I’ve never even seriously dated someone. How am I supposed to get engaged to some guy before I turn eighteen? It’s impossible. It’s humiliating. It’s child abuse! I was going to go to school with Poppy when we turned sixteen and that would give us two years. She was good with people. She knew how to talk to them. How am I supposed to do this alone?”
His face softened. “You were always the strong one. If you don’t try, if you allow yourself to become paralyzed by fear, you will always regret it.”
“Like my mother, paralyzed by fear?”
He smiled slightly. “If you had known her before…” His smile faded and he turned, heading down the stairs. “You need to have your trunks packed by tomorrow with whatever you want to take with you to the dormitory. I know that it’s going to be a difficult transition for you, but I am certain you will find others who share your love of black and the skeletons of rodents.”
I fingered the bleached skulls tied in my hair, the pigtails that fell over my shoulders almost down to my knees, coated with black. “You’re going to miss me, Revere. You’re going to miss having a sane person in the old lady.” I raised my voice as he disappeared from view, the stairs curving out of sight.
“Pushy, cantankerous old care taker.” I slammed the door and turned to survey my kingdom. The attic covered most of the house, so for sheer square footage it gave me plenty of room for most of my everyday activities. The center was taken up by an enormous hearth and wide chimneys from the fireplaces downstairs. Candles and mirrors were sprinkled throughout the space and ropes hung from the rafters. To my right was a little alcove where a body dangled amidst the myriad dripping strands, Dandy’s purple and black suit stuck through with hat pins. To my left was the bed, the armoire, and the wall that was an actual straight wall instead of the interior curves of the mansard roof. A French door led to a small patio and let in a little bit of natural light. Behind the chimney, past the body, was my lab.
My little business wasn’t nearly so small and insignificant as Revere seemed to think. Darkly Sweet was a serious brand in indie beauty products. I’d seen several knock-offs that didn’t have anything on my brand. Maybe it was small compared to the family business, the soulless beauty corporation Great Grandma had established, but it was mine in a way nothing else was.
I dragged two enormous trunks out of the shadows under the eaves, dust puffing off them when I flung back the lids. I packed away my vials and tubes with meticulous care, layers and layers of packing bubbles between until I was certain nothing would destroy my lab, my livelihood. That took up most of the trunk and the rest I packed with ingredients, herbs, oils, bottles and bags.
The other trunk I stared at before opening the armoire, studying the rows of dresses, skirts, blouses, and the bulky capes made of impermeable rubber interfaced with a thin layer of lead. My fingers lingered on the golden yellow cape, the color her hair had been.
I whirled from the armoire and flung myself across the bed, muffling my scream in the mattress. After I had that out of my system, I didn’t waste any time but reached under the bed and pulled out the laptop, booting up and checking the battery life. A quick search found Rosewood Academy, your generic preppy looking building, all marble pillars and leaded windows. So the insulation wouldn’t be, and neither would the security. Great, that is.
I went back to the shadows and pulled out two more trunks. I filled them with quilts and tapestries, wooded scenes mostly. Grandmama had collected a wide assortment of tapestries on her travels through Europe. Most of them had something off, something odd, like the humans had chicken feet, or the trees had faces.
I flopped back on my bed and was surprised when my laptop chimed and then said, “Welcome to Rosewood, Penny Lane,” in a pseudo-aristocratic New England accent. The screen had a scrollwork banner along the top, “Meet your peers,” and faces of boys and girls I imagined I’d soon see in person.
An image slid onto the screen, a guy with dark eyes and a sneer, his red hair artfully messy in sharp contrast to his cravat and diamond stick pin. We had paintings in the gallery overlooking the hall of that kind of ridiculous tie, but they went with wigs and careful coifs, and not the diamond stud in his ear. Too quickly, the screen slid to another face, and I had to watch the whole thing around in a loop before it got back to him. This time, I clicked through to find professional looking shots of him—Drake Huntsman, apparently—in equestrian gear riding horses and hitting a ball with a stick (while creaming two other players) and dressed in a tux. I stared at the tux photo where he stood next to a dazzling brunette in a blue satin gown. Blue wasn’t enough to capture the glamour. Peacock. Yes. Peacock that matched her eyes. He stood beside her looking indifferent, like the shot was taken before the moment of action unlike most of the other photos. He gave the impression of constant movement; even when he didn’t move, his eyes seemed to show the action of his mind.
I sat back and closed my laptop. “Good-bye, Penny Lane.”
Creepy. What kind of guy did I want to marry? I couldn’t help but snort out loud. It was the most ridiculous thing in the world to try to seriously contemplate something that insane. Yes, I’d always known that was part of Grandmama’s will, ever since the funeral when I was thirteen, but I’d done my best to pretend that it would all go away. Poppy…
I opened the laptop with a jerk and focused on the image of the Drake and … “Witley Penmore” at the “Annual Winter Musical Extravaganza.” I opened a new window and typed Drake Huntsman in the search bar. That revealed whole new dimension to his character. There were videos of him and his friends walking down a hall while girls bounced and squealed like rabbits that had been shot.
I watched video after video until I saw one titled, “Christmas Tree Suicide.” I thought it would be something like a pathetic school play, but instead there was screaming in the background, dark night, snow, and this enormous Christmas tree in the middle of a courtyard, some kid at the top of it. The video zoomed in and I could see his face, see the way he clutched at his neck while he dangled there, hanging.
After a flurry of evergreen limbs, the camera refocused on Drake wading through the greenery of the now fallen tree. He hauled the guy out and then with this snarling smile punched him hard and fast in the face. Drake hit him until he staggered over, then Drake kneed him so that he jerked and sprawled onto the ground. Drake stopped for a second, staring at the other boy with his wild, crazy look in his eyes before he drew back his big black boot and started kicking.
That’s when he started yelling, expletives that I wasn’t very familiar with—being homeschooled and all—on and on until I closed my laptop with shaky fingers then pulled my knees up to my chest and started rocking.
Poppy. Cruel boys who ruined lives carelessly. It took me a long time before I could open the laptop and go back to Rosewood to find the boy who had been the tree ornament. When Drake’s image passed, I pressed my thumb to his face.
Before much longer I found the other guy, Zachary Stoneburrow, brown-haired, cute enough, but not in sports or music, or anything else as far as I could find.
I searched the school photos and found him in the periphery: sitting in bleachers by himself, sitting at a table in the dining room by himself, a loner in a sea of guppies. He was a peer, though. He was eligible as my spouse. I hissed at the preposterous notion and leapt off the bed to open the armoire and dig through to the back, the lacy, frilly dress-up dresses I hadn’t worn since Poppy… We’d had elaborate tea parties that lasted for days, combining drama, music and sparring with the consumption of tea and finger sandwiches.
If I wanted a nice guy, I had to be a nice girl. When I went somewhere where there were other people I felt less and less comfortable until I was snarling like Señor Mort. Who could snarl when they were cute and happy? I would be like those French candy sandwiches dyed unnatural colors. Macaroons. I used to love the macaroons Grandmama brought back after one of her long trips.
Remembering her, I left every single black thing in my closet and filled up the trunk with lace, pink, and florals. I went to close the trunk, hesitated then threw in the black cloak. I could survive a nuclear blast in that thing.
After that was my sewing machine and fabrics in the school colors. I’d have to come up with my own elaborate uniform that somehow broke all barriers between myself and Zachary Stoneburrow, because I was going to marry him. Hopefully he liked legs more than breasts, although I could always buy a bigger pair if it came down to it.
I closed the lid of the last trunk with finality then shoved them to the door where they’d be taken in a very few hours.
Standing in front of the mirror above the mantel, I held up my two plaits before letting them slap down against my neck. I’d had “pitch” in my hair since Poppy tried to light it on fire when I was ten. It would take ages to get it all out. I pushed up my long black sleeves and got to work.