I arrived at Warwick House too early. Jude looked back at me when I checked my watch—9:10—as we drove under great iron arches toward the looming manor.
“You okay, Bethe?”
“I’m fine. I’ll wait outside. Thanks for driving me, Jude. I owe you one.”
“Anything for you, Bethy.”
Gravel crunched and spat under my feet as I rolled my suitcase over the driveway. Jude turned in an ungainly circle in the white driveway and the car disappeared from view. He was proud of that car, a nice little 2017 remodel.
I went all the way up to the wide, flat stone steps which tunneled through yawning stone arches toward a great metal door. I was forty minutes early so I took a seat behind one of the pillars. To my right was a large prickly climbing-rose plant blocking a mist-shrouded garden area, which lined the front face of Warwick House.
Place is a little lonely, I thought.
Oh well. I wouldn’t be staying long. Just enough to scrape together some money. I’d been fired from my last job, managing another place like Warwick House—that’s where I met Jude—because the owner didn’t seem to like smoking on the job.
Finally, the door clicked and heaved open. A middle-aged man looked out of the doorway, his greying sandy hair dim from the darkness inside. He began to withdraw, like a tired turtle into its shell.
I scrambled upward. He stopped and I rushed forward, my hand outstretched, my suitcase dragging behind me.
“Sorry, I’m here,” I said. “I’m Bethe Cavanaugh, I’m here for the management position?”
“Ah,” he said, shaking my hand. His own was dry but limp. “I’m Ben Del Rey. You’re here to see Mrs. Warwick.” His voice was gentle. I had to lean in to hear him.
“Don’t mind the mess,” he said as we walked in. The ceilings were impassively high, the walls dark oakwood, one of the greatest Gothic-style manors I’d ever seen, but the ground was spread with crumpled papers, rolled up pieces of cloth, and broken pieces of furniture. “We’re—er—cleaning up.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, because it genuinely seemed to pain him. “The last place I worked—” I rethought what I was about to say. I didn't want to say anything he might interpret the wrong way. I ended up saying “Started out pretty messy too. Not when I left it!” and laughed.
Ben smiled and turned toward a massive grand staircase.
“This is the bedroom wing,” he said, gesturing up. Then he pointed underneath. “In there is the living room, the parlor, the greenhouse, the library. You can also get to the game-room that way, but we don’t use that room much. Mrs. Warwick is the only one who’d use that room, and she doesn’t get out of bed much.”
“Yes,” he said. “She’s always sick and she needs someone to manage the place.”
“Who managed it before me?”
“A young lady named Mia,” he said, walking up the staircase. “I’ll show you to Mrs. Warwick’s room, and then I’ll take you to yours.”
We reached the top, where there were two long branching hallways of doors. Ben pointed to the left one. “That’s the servants’ hallway. That would be Mrs. Lourth, the cook, Dacia, the housekeeper—they’re both eighty—Winston, the gardener, and myself. And you, of course.”
He pointed and started walking to the right. “Here are the family rooms. Mrs. Warwick has no family left, so these rooms remain empty.” He sounded wistful. “And here, at the end of the hallway, is Mrs. Warwick’s room. She’s just had a recent blood transfusion, about a week ago, so she’s stronger than usual. Go on.”
He left. I walked toward the closed, black door, framed by two burning yellow wall-lamps. I knocked, and heard a faint, breathy “Enter!”
I pushed the door open and entered. It was a whitewashed room, brilliantly bare. Directly ahead of me was an immense white bed in an ebony bed frame, underneath a window smeared with white paint. I blinked and tried to focus on the creature in bed.
She was enormous. That’s all I thought at first. Her wide, pink face took up half the pillow supporting her. Her flabby, pink flesh spilled out from under the white bedding, over the entire bed. Her small pink hands were folded on her huge stomach, their hue strangely enunciated by the brilliant white everywhere else. Her eyes were small but not beady; they were blue and piercing and looking directly at me.
“Good morning, Mrs. Warwick,” I heard myself say. I felt very hot and cold in flashes, like I was pulled out of myself and just frozen, watching myself talk to this monstrous woman.
“Good morning,” she replied, her voice surprisingly light and airy.
“I’m Bethe Cavanaugh,” I said, walking a little closer. “I’m here for the managing position.”
A week later I fell into a routine. I always do, just about that week or two-week mark. I knew what to say to please Mrs. Warwick to be sure the bills were paid on time and the servants kept happy. Mrs. Lourth and Dacia were both over eighty, so shriveled I could barely believe they could stand up in bed each morning. Winston was seventy at least. Ben Del Rey, on the wrong side of middle aged, was youngest. I seemed to be the only person in the entire vicinity under twenty-five.
There was something strange about them, though. Dacia had a face like a child. It was wrinkled as it should be, but underdeveloped, without a real jawline and a short nose like a toddler’s. Ben and Winston could have been twins, just fifteen years apart, and both had eyes that were just not quite right. Almost demonic, and I couldn’t tell why.
Once, just before bed, Mrs. Warwick called to speak to me about finances for the kitchen. When I entered, I accidentally scraped my arm against the old mahogany splinters poking out the door, making a little slice on the outside of my forearm. I didn't notice until she said something.
“Why, dear, you’re bleeding! Come here.”
I went. Gently, she wiped away the blood with her own fingers. When she thought I wasn’t looking, she rubbed on her own arm until the porous pink skin absorbed it completely, closing her eyes in ecstasy. I jumped back, made an excuse, and ran out.
The Wednesday after I came, I was going to meet with Mrs. Warwick about ordering supplies for the garden, and heard her already speaking with Ben inside.
“But Mistress—” I heard him say, whiningly, and she in response: “No. It must be soon. I can feel it soon. And she’s the last I need! After that everything will be perfect.”
“But it’s so hard to find someone else, and she works so well! Just another few weeks, Mistress.”
I knocked softly and heard a jump.
“Shh,” I heard Mrs. Warwick whisper.
I entered. “Hello, ma’am? I’m here to talk about buying for the garden in the fall. Are you busy right now?”
She shook her head, jowls shaking, and said in her girlish, unnatural voice, “Leave me, Ben. I’ll talk with Bethe now.”
Then: “Let’s not talk about that right now, Bethe. I want to talk about something else.”
“As you know, my dear—” She took my hand, caressed it like she loved the very blood flowing in my veins. “—I’m sick. Very sick.”
“Yes.” Everyone else had made a point of telling me this; not to upset her, not to worry her too much. They showed where her medicine was if she needed help. They said things like: “She gets transfusions often, a regular thing, about once a month, and another soon. She gets all weak and needs emergency measures if we can’t get to the hospital in time for the transfusions.”
I looked full in the face of the enormous old woman. “Why did Ben Del Rey call you ‘Mistress’? He’s not the kind of servant who does that.”
A real scowl came over her face and she gripped my hand painfully. “Don’t ask questions like that, Bethe. You don’t want to know what will happen to you if you do.”
I sat frozen, trying to tug my hand out and failing. Finally I nodded, and she relaxed her grip.
“I’ll need another transfusion soon, dear heart,” she said, looking up at me with her little sky-blue eyes. “I just need to know, just in case, what type of blood you have?”
I didn’t know what to say. I looked at her, watched the little twitches at the corners of her mouth, the desperate, hungry look in her tiny eyes, the way her too-pink hands scrabbled nervously.
“B negative,” I said finally. It wasn’t true. I didn’t know why I said that. Maybe I didn't want her rubbing my blood on her skin again.
She smiled dollishly, and said, “Perfect. That’s just lovely, Bethe. Ben sure has a knack.” Her eyes trailed up my arms, tan and warm from the sun outside when I talked to Winston that morning. I crossed them self-consciously. “You may go.”
I nodded at her and left. I ran down the stairs to the kitchen, turned on the sink, and rubbed my arms and face in water so hot it was almost unbearable. I tried to scrub every oily memory of her off my body.
Mrs. Lourth watched me silently.
“Tell me,” I said, turning from the sink, water dripping down my neck. “Are you all related? How come Ben calls Mrs. Winston ‘Mistress’ and only when I’m not there? Why do Ben and Winston look so alike? Why does Dacia—”
She walked over, her thin mouth set angrily, and slapped me hard across the face. I reeled back, tasting blood in my mouth. Staggering, I touched my cheek and gasped, “Hey! What—why did you do that?!”
Mrs. Lourth walked to the knife drawer, turned, and looked at me with crossed arms. “Don’t ask questions, Miss Cavanaugh. I thought we talked about this.”
She left. I stared at her retreating back, my hand still on my stinging cheek.
“Winston,” I said carefully, the next morning. “Why do you work here? How come everyone looks at me funny?”
He was digging holes for crocuses. He stood, dusting off his hands. “You don’t learn, do you?” He stepped closer. I stepped back.
“I just want to know,” I said, uncrossing my arms. I was not going to get slapped again.
He returned to the crocuses. “We’re all. . . linked, if you will, to the Mistress.” The way he said it made my skin crawl. I saw a flicker in his eyes, and realized why they looked so strange. The whites weren’t white at all; they were pink, like Mrs. Warwick’s skin.
“You look so strange, all of you.”
He shrugged again. “We’re old, Miss Cavanaugh.”
“Old doesn’t make Dacia’s face look like that.”
He didn’t reply.
“Why does Mrs. Warwick stay up there? How come she needs transfusions so often?” I didn’t ask why she'd rubbed my blood against her skin, or why she seemed to take such pleasure from it.
He glared with such ferocity that I stepped back.
“She’s sick,” he said shortly, and shut his mouth.
That night, when the house was dark for the night, I called Jude. I needed to hear a familiar voice.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Jude, I don’t know what’s going on here. I’m scared. Everything’s creepy, and the lady has weird skin and gets transfusions a lot—”
“Yeah. The servants are all really old and their eyes look weird and they call Mrs. Warwick ‘Mistress’ but only when I’m not there. I’m scared.”
“You’re okay, right?”
Jude paused. “Blood transfusions, huh?”
“You. . . want me to come get you?”
“I don’t know, Jude. I called just to let someone know—in case something happens to me.” I choked on the words.
“Okay, Bethe,” he said. “Call me at noon tomorrow, and if you don’t, I’ll call the police.”
“Okay,” I whispered. I hung up, standing there beside my bed, my phone pressed against my mouth, tears running down my face.
The next morning, Dacia cornered me in the parlor.
“Miss Cavanaugh.” A tiny sneer curled her mouth. “I’ve heard you’ve become a little busybody.”
I looked at that old-yet-young face.
“You’ve talked to Winston, to Ben.” She ticked off her fingers. “To Lourth, and even to Mrs. Warwick.”
“So?” I asked.
Dacia’s face contorted into a grimace. “What are you prying at, girl?”
I stood and felt a little safer. I was twice her height. “I think you’re all demons, Dacia.”
I was lying, but as she stepped back, stricken, I reconsidered. She left the room and I bit my lip. Could it be? I would call Jude in four hours.
Then I heard a shriek from upstairs. I jumped, set my phone on the coffeetable, and dashed up the stairs. It was Mrs. Warwick. Dacia and Ben ran from the hallway, Mrs. Lourth just behind me. I looked at them, panicking, but in the split-second of terror I could see that though their expressions were fearful and shocked, their eyes were calm, calculated. We burst through the door.
Mrs. Warwick lay on her bed, mouth open in a scream, body still. Her arms were flung out, her face white as a sheet.
“Transfusion!” Ben shouted, and leaped over the sprawled pillows on the ground, grabbing the fat pink arm. Dacia dashed to the medicine cabinet and pulled out a makeshift IV line, which tumbled out of her hands onto the ground.
Ben looked up at me. “We don’t have the supply! It’s supposed to come this afternoon!”
“How long to the hospital?” I shouted back.
“Three hours!” His voice broke. His eyes caught mine before they strangely lost their panic. “What’s your blood type, Bethe?”
I’d never gotten tested. “B negative!” I said, repeating the lie. It was the first thing that came to my head.
I’ve read The Ring of Endless Light. But I didn’t realize that Mrs. Warwick wasn’t bleeding from the mouth or nose, as you do when you need an emergency transfusion. She looked peaceful.
“Can we?” Ben shouted in my face, already attaching the end of the IV to Mrs. Warwick’s inner-forearm vein and brandishing the other at me. “You’re the youngest, you can give enough to save her!”
I stuttered, blinked, and that was all it took. They had the line in my arm within seconds, like they’d done it a hundred other times to a hundred other women.
“But what’s her blood type?”
“O positive.” They watched the blood seep out of me and drain into Mrs. Warwick.
“Don’t cross your ankles,” Dacia said irritably.
“But she’ll die if it’s a different type!” I gasped, moving to detach myself. Ben gave a shout and stopped my hand.
“No! Blood type doesn’t matter,” he said with a greedy glint. “It’s the youth in the blood.”
I looked at him, repulsed. “What are you talking about?” I started to feel lightheaded, and felt sweat break out on my forehead.
“A little more.” Ben leaned forward. Mrs. Warwick started turning pinker, and as I watched, she began to change. Her face started to slim and turn almost younger. My heart pounded.
“Why—?” I begged.
Dacia looked at me harshly. “What do you think, kiddo?” I suddenly understood why there were no younger servants at the house. They’d already given their blood and died for their Mistress.
I stared at the IV bag hanging between us. It had filled twice. My thoughts began to slow. I stood, my brain like a drowning man trying to keep his head afloat. I yanked the IV out of my arm, barely registering the slice of pain and the warm drip of my own blood down my arm.
“Demons!” I shrieked and fumbled out. I think they were too shocked to move. I felt hot and cold together, ears starting to ring. As I half-ran, half-fell down the stairs and out the door, the ringing grew, my eyesight peppered with bright lights. I was not going to die for Mrs. Warwick’s youth.
Away from that evil house, my vision returned and the ringing partly receded. When I could breathe normally, I started running, out the open gates, to the road. I turned right, blindly. I’d left my phone, my suitcase, everything except my very life. Jude would be worried, but at least I was alive.
I realized why they were ‘cleaning’ the first day. They were hiding another, bloodless, body.
Behind, in the great yawning house, a shrivelled ghost-body crumbled in the white bed, ghostlike wisps of dead demon-servants gathered around. Somewhere, I knew, there was a tomb lined with the bodies of young women just like me, blood drained from their bodies and given to Mistress. Their arms crossed their shrivelled chests. Lilies slept above them.
Warwick House finally out of sight, I slowed to a walk.
“The last one.” I repeated what the old lady had said. Mrs. Warwick used the blood of girls to give her youth again, I thought. That’s why she loved my blood on her skin so much.
Wicked, demonic magic.
I was the last one needed to truly restore her.
I shivered, kept walking. The autumn air was crisp around me, and I finally felt clean.
Gentle tendrils of rose-ivy and bushes of pearled hyacinth framed the road. Somewhere above a hundred girls’ bodies buried under young loam, cool wind blew around the mouths of open-faced white lilies.