I nervously fiddled with the beautiful diamond ring on my finger. My fiance, Ross, took my hand and gripped it tightly. We’re both nervous. We’re going to introduce Ross to my family, and to tell them about our engagement. It’s the first time I've seen them in nine years. It’s the first time I’ve seen them since I escaped.
Drew and June Bridges were the vile owners of the Bridges Manor, and my parents. Drew Bridges had made his fortune as a newspaper publisher, both the manor and the business passed down through the Bridges family. Never one to welcome in society, the horrid couple shut themselves in our home with me and my four siblings.
Kenneth, the oldest Bridges child. Sara, my favorite and most trusted. Me, Victoria, the middle child. Clark, the smartest and cleverest boy I ever met. And Julia, the youngest and most innocent.
The black, wrought-iron gates creaked open, revealing the mossy and deteriorating stone manor, it’s charming elegance long gone and hidden underneath layers of overgrown ivy. I used to hate this place. It’s why I ran away, and I’m glad I did. That house was full of secrets. Secrets I didn’t want getting out, or letting my parents know.
When I was sixteen, there was a boy, Stephen, who lived just down the road. We had a fling, meant only to be temporary, but it changed our lives forever. I got pregnant, and I knew my parents would truly kill me if they found out, so I hid it. The only two people who knew where Stephen and Sara, who helped deliver the baby. My daughter, Grace, was born in a small maintenance shed on the edge of the manor. I gave her to Stephen and told him to run, to get as far away from the manor as possible.
I never heard from him again, which I guess is a good thing. But I wish he would have told me where he was, so that I may have found him after I escaped. I never told Ross. It would be pointless and too much heartbreak. And so, my secret still remains buried.
I crouched down in front of the dirty sunroom windows, peering out at the motorcoach making its way up the long dirt drive. Victoria managed to escape. I’m not so lucky. I felt the scars on my forearms, resisting the urge to cry.
“Julia!” Momma shouted sharply, tapping her foot on the dark, wooden, floor. I jumped up and turned my back to the window, avoiding Momma’s cold, piercing eyes. Memories flood in as I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to make them go away.
My secret, only Momma and Daddy and Kenneth and Clark know. When I was fifteen, two years after Victoria escaped, I tried to too. I wanted all of the torture to end, so I took a kitchen knife and tried to kill Momma and Daddy in their sleep. I remember the moment of horror when Daddy grabbed my wrists as I was about to bring down the knife. How Daddy had dragged me to the cellar and thrown me down, bolting the door and leaving me in utter darkness. The months and months of whippings and cuttings and pain and torture that had followed.
“What are you doing?” Momma barked.
“Watching Victoria,” I mumbled. Momma opened her mouth to snarl something nasty, but Kenneth walked in, and she shut it. Kenneth is big and strong. He can protect me. He and Clark helped me after I came stumbling out of the cellar, trembling head to foot. He has protected me from Momma for the past eight years, since the incident. But it was no use. I was banished to live out the rest of my days rotting in the depths of the Bridges Manor.
I marched through the kitchen, shooting dirty looks at the servants and slapping my horse whip against their backs. Their stares of timidness and fear delighted me. My secret, known only by the servants, lashed out at them every day, the results of imperfection and lacking. A young girl shakily approached me and I towered over her, menacingly tapping the horsewhip against my hand.
“Mistress Victoria is here,” she said, studying her shoes.
“Don’t call her that!” I snapped, cracking the whip against the counter. The girl flinched. “She is not a mistress, the traitorous, ungrateful little brat! How dare she come back here, how dare she think she’s welcome!”
“She wrote me, Drew,” June emerged from the doorway. “I wanted to meet this fiance of hers.”
“A reporter, can you believe it! He’s a reporter!” I grumped and sat down in a nearby chair. “What did our disgraceful daughter become again?”
“A nurse, dear.” June replied.
I sat, the angry thoughts boiling and swirling in my mind like a hurricane. June ushered the girl away and knelt down next to the chair.
“Drew,” she whispered in ear, pleading. “Please, let me go. I can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep hurting my children. Julia, she’s scared and hurting. Please, let me help her.”
A tear dripped down her cheek, splattering on the steamy linoleum.
“Wipe that up,” I spat. “You do that, and that means poison in your cup, a knife in your side, boiling water on your skin.”
June stood up, wiping away the tears. My other little secret.
Two servants tugged open the massive front doors, letting Victoria and her fiance into the entry hall. Sara ran up to Victoria, enveloping her in a massive hug. I strode up to her and gave her a hug, squeezing her tightly.
“How long did the money last?” I muttered in her ear.
“Three years,” she replied. “Thank you so much, where did you get it?”
I shushed her as her fiance approached me and offered his hand. I shook it.
“Hi,” he said cheerfully. “My name’s Ross.”
“Nice to meet you,” I smiled. Cheerfulness was rare around here. “My name’s Kenneth.”
Victoria took him by the arm, leading him away.
“Later,” she mouthed over her shoulder.
But I couldn’t tell her later. I could never tell her. If my parents found out, I’d be dead. It was my secret. I was the one who caused the newspaper publishing business to go bankrupt. I was so angry. Julia had just shown me her scars, red and swollen on her pale skin. I wanted to get back at my parents. I stole all of the money and funding from the bank account. I forwarded it to Victoria, who had already been gone for two years. I kept a small portion of it. Some went towards a tonic for Julia, to help with her scarring. But the other was stashed, saved for the rest of us if we could ever escape.
I doubt it will ever happen. I’ve been here thirty-one years, and I’m going to die in thirty-one more. No matter, I can’t tell anyone my secret. Not even Victoria. It’s one that will kill me. One that I’ll have to keep forever.
I readied in my room, preparing for Victoria’s engagement dinner tonight. I pulled my dress off over my head and gazed at myself in the mirror. The silver chain hung around my neck, and I fingered the shiny golden ring that lay on my chest. The door creaked open, and I hurriedly wrestled on my silken robe. Nicholas, one of Father’s servants, stepped in and closed the door behind him. I smiled.
Nicholas wrapped his arms around my waist, and I slung mine around his neck. We kissed passionately, and he touched the ring, brushing his fingers up against my freckled skin.
“It’s been almost seven years, exactly.” Nicholas said, grasping the fabric that covered my back. “I promise, I’ll get us out of here. We can start a family, just like we planned.”
He brushed his lips on neck, and I grinned.
It was our little secret. We had fallen in love when we were seventeen, and had eloped when we were nineteen. Besides the two of us, only Victoria and Kenneth knew and had been there. Kenneth had befriended Nicholas some years before, and served as the best man and officiator. Victoria had served as the maid of honor. My parents would never have supported our marriage. A servant, my father would say, disgraceful. So we had had to do this in seclusion, Nicholas sneaking in after my parents had gone to bed.
“What are you planning on wearing?” Nicholas asked, moving up from my neck back to my face.
“I haven’t decided,” I answered, playfully biting his lip.
Someone knocked on the door and we both jumped, fearing the harsh punishments if we were caught. Victoria cracked the door open, taking in our entangled figures and smiled.
“Sorry,” she groaned awkwardly. “I’ll come back later.”
We breathed sighs of relief, thankful that it hadn’t been Mother or Father.
“Hey,” Nicholas lifted my chin to look him in the eyes. “It’s okay. We’re going to get out soon. I have the means, I just need some time to work out the kinks.”
I nodded as he let me go, sliding back out into the hallway. I hated this. I wanted to be seen with him. I wanted to start a family with him. I pulled a deep violet dress from the depths of my closet. I put it on and laced up the back, tucking the ring, and my secret, far away.
Everyone was gathered in the drawing room for drinks, silently sitting and waiting for the servants to set out the first course. Sara had already toasted Victoria and Ross, who were now talking with Julia. Julia looked more excited and alive than I had seen her in the past eight years.
Momma sat by the window, quietly playing chess with Kenneth. Father stood solem in the corner, observing the ongoings from the safety of the shadows. His deathly hard glare rested on me, and I scurried over to him, not wanting him to cause a scene at Victoria’s dinner.
“Remember our little secret,” Father growled in my ear. “If you’ve told anyone, you haven’t got much longer to live, boy.”
“I haven’t.” I confirmed, feeling small next to his enormous figure. That’s were Kenneth got it from. I slouched down in an armchair on the opposite side of the room. Thirteen minutes. That’s how much time every other person in this room, besides me, Momma, and Father, had left to live. I always knew Father was mental, sick beyond the help of any doctor or psychiatrist.
Six days ago, when Momma got Victoria’s letter, I had been passing by when I had heard Father’s voice bursting from the parlor.
“This is the last straw! She has the courage to run away from home, and now she has the audacity to come back!”
I had crept closer to the doorway, peering into the firelit room.
Momma had seen me, catching my shadow outside.
“I’m done with these children! Worthless, sniveling devils! I’ve got to get rid of them somehow!” Father had continued, a psychotic smile spreading across his face. “We’ll give Victoria what she wants. A family dinner. Then dessert comes and...” he gave a menacing laugh.
“Drew!” Momma had cautioned. Father had grabbed her shoulders and pressed them against the back of her chair.
“You’ll help me. You’ll do as I say, or you know what happens.”
Momma pointed to my shadow and I had nearly sprung out of my skin when Father had pounded,
I had meekly turned into the doorway, and Father had slammed the door behind me.
“Did you hear everything, boy?”
I had nodded, not wanting to face the truth, but scared of what might have happened if they found out I had lied.
“Keep it a secret,” Father had rumbled. “And you might be spared!”
He was deranged. Demented. Maniacal. And I rushed out as fast as my legs could carry me. I had paced in my room for hours, trying to find a way to stop him. Every plot I developed, my brain tore holes in, until there was one left. One I had to execute momentarily.
I caressed the handle of the knife stuck into my waistband, admiring its smooth blackness and its sharp edges. The leather case rubbed against my skin, causing it to rash. But if I could kill my father tonight, then I could be free forever. And it could be my little secret.
I clenched Victoria’s hand as a maid entered the room and informed us that the first course had been laid out. This evening had been anything but normal. I understood now why she hated to bring up her childhood, or why she got so excited when we went to visit my parents, who loved when we came over.
They were ghastly people, with the words praise and goodwill never having sprung from their lips. A pleasant gesture never having been performed by their hands. Admirable thoughts and deeds never having conjured in their minds.
Eight, red, velvet-lined chairs surrounded a long, shiny table laden with small dishes of food. We all stiffly sat down, Victoria’s parents taking either head of the banquet
“This table is beautiful,” I remarked, trying to offer up a complement. “Mahogany?”
“Yes,” Victoria’s mother replied hesitantly.
“He loves to build things in his spare time,” Victoria quickly explained. “He built a rocking chair and a desk in our garage last summer.”
“Hmm,” her mother responded, eyeing me off the tip of her nose.
I turned my gaze down to my plate, and to my hand gripping Victoria’s under the table. I fiddled with my thumb, and I felt Victoria playing with her ring, twisting it around and around her finger. She looked up at me and gave a tiny smile. I knew she was as uncomfortable as I was being back in the place she had tried so hard to escape from.
The clatter of pans and covers came from the doorway as a round of servants swooped in and cleared everyone's plates. A second wave of servants entered in through the main double-doors and placed the steaming second course on the table in front of us.
A burst of hot air came forth when the servants lifted the covers. Nobody moved at first, as if waiting for the instruction. Then, Victoria’s father moved for the chicken, somehow signaling to everyone that it was okay to eat now. We were all quiet, only the sound of clinking silverware rang through the room.
A heavy air hung over the table, as if everyone was trying to keep a secret from the assembly. Such a large and inexplicable family, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Nobody said a thing. A stranger might have thought we were a family of mutes. I stared down the table at Drew, who was poking at his vegetables dryly. My plan ran through my head on repeat, boring it in until I could recite it in my sleep.
I slid my hand into my pocket, patting the green glass vial. Quick and painful. That was the death for Drew. What he deserved.
Yes, I thought. Stuff your face. Enjoy this meal. It’ll be your last. Then I’ll be free. We’ll all be free. And they’ll be no one holding us back.
I looked over at Victoria, sitting a bit hunched over and grasping Ross’s hand. Her ring glinted on her finger. Ross really did seem like a nice man. I eagerly anticipated welcoming him to the family. When Drew was dead, I could finally drop the act and apologize to my children for the awful way I had treated them all of their lives. I could explain myself without having to worry about waking up dead.
That was why I had done it. I was tired of the way Drew had been treating me. Like I was an animal. A man in the town over, Richard, had been my one source of condolence during the few months of our fling. Victoria really did look like him, chestnut-brown hair, deep hazel eyes and all. Drew thought it was genes that had skipped a generation. But no, that darling belonged to the only man I ever truly loved.
A glint down the table captured my eye. Clark, who was sitting in the seat on the left of Drew, was stroking something tucked into the waistband of his pants. A small smile dashed across his face before it disappeared again, and he tucked his shirt back over the object.
His father’s child in only one way. He liked to keep things a secret.
My eyes swept the room, intaking everything, something to do, to discuss, to reminisce. Both Mother and Clark seemed to be preoccupied, incessantly fixed on Father. Every minute towards the end of the meal, their smirks seemed to swell wider and wider.
Father rang a bell and shouted repulsive vulgar remarks at the servants. Dessert was brought out, lemon yorkshire pudding.
Not a sound was made. Not a movement was detected. An unknown climax peaked. Clark and Mother picked up their spoons tentatively, both clasping concealed objects. Clark seemed to draw something out of his belt and settle his arm underneath the table, rotated towards Father and looking him right in the eye.
“Well,” Mother announced, raising her spoon laden with pudding. “To evenings joyous as this!”
Everyone lifted their filled spoons, wordlessly fulfilling the toast. Father refused to hoist up his spoon, grunting and muttering under his breath. He took a stuffed scoop, and Mother and Clark seemed to sit on the edges of their seats.
Father put the overloaded bite into his mouth and swallowed, just as Clark drove the object in his hand up towards Father.
He screamed in agony, and clenched his stomach. Pitching dead as a doornail into his pudding.