As the bells in the church below the cliff sang midnight in a melancholy choir, the world smelled of lime zest and metal, and a dark-masked villian slipped away unnoticed.
Grandfather O’Brien found the body as he went up to bed, his eyes red from exhaustion and his brain dizzy with pipe smoke. His feet slid in the blood, but he barely screamed as he looked down. Zooey had always been his least favorite grandchild anyways.
She lay across stairs, the long train of her dress spread out beside her, soaked deep red, her head tipped back over the top step, lips full and soft and speckled with her own blood.
“Mariah!” Grandfather hollered, voice crackling and uneven, “Come help me on the stairs.” He eyed the body with distaste until his daughters’ footsteps fell on the stairs below him, at which point he turned.
Mariah’s eyes went wide, welling first with tears and then anger like a bed of nails. She pointed with a shaking finger, “What did you do?”
He shrugged and rolled his eyes, “Nothing. I just found her here, but you need to help me clean it up.”
“No!” Mariah crossed her arms, and tilted her chin so the strands of hair that dripped around the edges of her face fell behind her ears. “That is my daughter, and I will not touch her dead body.”
“You didn’t even like her. Not a week ago you said she was eccentric and a disgrace to your name.”
Mariah frowned back down at Zooey’s bloody torso, where the pale fabric of her dress mixed with her shredded flesh, “Yes, but I didn’t want her to die. And you know I don’t like dealing with blood anyways.”
“Fine,” Grandfather tried to sigh, but it was interrupted by a barrage of coughs that bent his body forward, tugging at his spine like the wind in the boughs of a willow tree. Once he recovered, he raised his hand to cup his mouth. “Jamie,” he shouted, voice sliding down the banister to fill the marble-floored hall below, “Come help me with something.”
Mariah rolled her eyes, face up to the ceiling and body angled away from her daughter. “He won’t help either. That son of mine is almost worse than she was. Always so emotional.”
“Well, what do you expect me to do?” Grandfather grimaced and gestured with one wrinkled hand. “Call your other son in here?”
Eyes narrowing, Mariah bared her teeth at him, hissing, “Don’t you dare bring Matthew into this.”
Jamie’s feet thudded up the stairs below them, “Hey, what do you need help with…” He trailed off, eyes following the dark stain on the carpet up to Zooey’s sprawled out corpse. His pajama shirt hung limp from his shoulders. “Oh my God.”
Tears slipped down Jamie’s cheeks, rolled down his temples through the stubble on his chin, trailed along the edge of his jaw and slid down his throat to pool in the hollows of his collarbone. The sky above him was at its darkest, when the night is so pure that it creates a whole new reality, where day is night and night is day and the predator becomes prey.
His chest heaved as he rolled Zooey’s body off the cliff into the ocean below, her long skirts catching on the rough rocky ground. She fell slowly, dress fluttering around her, the white fabric speckled dark from the blood, and Jamie watched her until she hit the water and sank too deep for him to see her pale silhouette beneath the waves.
When he turned, he saw two shadows in the highest window of the house, bathed in yellow light and standing still, watching him.
All slept but two.
One paced. The windows were flung open to the frigid night. The floorboards creaked.
The other donned a dark mask, brought out a knife, sharpened the blade.
Slipped through a door.
Crept up the stairs.
Sunk a blade into an innocent heart.
Four and Five
The waves crashed against the rocky shore.
As the sun wavered on the watery horizon and drew the town from sleep, a second body was found. This time, its discovery brought much mourning.
“Who is doing this? Why would they kill my Cameron?” Mariah wailed, crouched beside her young daughter’s body, so small lying in its crib.
Grandfather O’Brien leaned on his cane, holding a carved pipe in one shaking hand. “It must be the McMahons.”
Jamie looked up from where he sat leaning against the doorframe, eyes red from the crying and the smoke and the lack of sleep. “No, they’re good people. Why would they do this?”
“There were stirrings of a blood feud a few decades ago,” Grandfather shrugged, tapping the stem of his pipe with stained fingertips. His nails were torn and uneven. “Johannah pushed them down, said she didn’t want her family name tainted with death.”
Mariah tilted up her tear-stained face with a snarl twisting her lip to show her square teeth, “As if she wasn’t a killer herself. What a hypocrite.”
“Now that she’s underground,” Grandfather ignored his daughter, “I guess they don’t care what she told them to do any more.”
“Well,” Mariah cracked her neck, “If this is a blood feud, we need to strike back.”
Mariah didn’t want to throw this body off the cliff. So smothering her sobs, she dressed Cameron in a pretty purple dress. She curled her hair, tied it up in ribbons. Mariah’s breath shook and her chest heaved as she wrapped the body in a quilt and tucked it back into bed. She left a book out on the nightstand, as though she might read Beauty and the Beast before bed one final time.
For breakfast there were eggs and bacon and slightly stale biscuits, tucked into a basket and placed on the table beside a bouquet of white flowers.
“Where are Zooey and Cameron?” Matthew asked as he sat down, his plate piled with food and water sloshing up over the side of his glass to land on the tablecloth.
Grandfather and Mariah rushed to talk over each other.
“They both seem to have come down with a cold,” said Mariah, “They’ll be staying in their rooms today.”
“They’re in their rooms,” said Grandfather, “Don’t go in. They don’t want you bothering them.”
Matthew shrugged and sunk his teeth into a biscuit, warm yellow butter dripping over the edge. “Alright. I think today I’m going to keep working on my poems anyways.” He snapped his suspenders as he stood, setting down his unfinished biscuit and smiling at his mother. Gesturing at his plate, he grinned, “You know what they say, hunger is good for the imagination.” He winked and strutted off, hat tilted on his head of golden curls.
Jamie put his head in his hands.
Grandfather stood above Jamie, blowing smoke rings into the air. “Do you understand what you have to do?” He asked, voice rasping.
Jamie nodded, “Yes, but I don’t understand why--”
Mariah cut him off. “Good. Then go do it. Don’t be slow. We’ll be waiting.”
She pulled him up by the arm and handed him the sword from the mantle. He had always thought it was decorative, but now he saw speckles of long-dried brown blood on the edge of the blade and in the cracks between the jewels on the handle.
Eyes on the door of the library, which sat slightly ajar at the top of the stairs, leaking the cheerful sounds of Matthew’s humming, Mariah and Grandfather ushered Jamie out the back door.
The town below the cliff seemed empty, seeming to avoid Jamie like oil and water. The sword bounced on his hip, rough, ruby-encrusted hilt rubbing digging into his skin. He walked a loop, dirt crunching beneath his feet. On his way past the flower shop for the second time, she was there. Her back was turned, the pale pink ribbon tied around her hair falling out, a bouquet of white roses clutched in her hand.
She was speaking to the shop owner, and each time she gestured with her arm, petals fell from the flowers and fluttered to the ground. Jamie stopped in the street, watching her, and felt his throat tighten, tears burn in his eyes, his heart swell up and break in half and shatter into a thousand pieces in his chest.
She turned, skirt spinning around her knees, and he saw her eyes light up as she saw him. “Jamie!” She cried, throwing her arms up into the air.
He smiled and patted her back as she embraced him, white roses pressing into his back. “Hi Lucy.”
“Why do you have a sword?”
“Oh I don’t know. I just wanted to feel fancy.” Jamie tried to smirk, blinking past the image of the blade sinking into her chest, of the blood weeping down the front of her dress. His voice cracked.
She frowned. “What’s wrong? You seem sad.”
“Nothing. I’m fine.”
Brow furrowed, she grabbed his hand. “No, I can tell you’re not. Come on. I’ll take you to my house and make you some tea.”
He couldn’t resist, and she pulled him along. The fingers of her left hand were twined with Jamie’s, and the fingers of her right were wrapped around the roses.
“Have you been here before?” She asked when they arrived, leading him over to a worn loveseat to sit. He shook his head. Everything hurt. The pain pulsed out from his heart, running down his arms and making his fingers shake. Words bounced from side to side in his head. “Well,” she pirouetted the short distance to the kitchen, “Welcome to the McMahon home.”
The house smelled of ginger and honey and the color orange. Lucy sat with her head curled up against Jamie’s chest, eyes half-lidded, lips curved into a smile. Jamie’s hand was wrapped around the hilt of his sword, which lay beside him on the cushions, and he could feel the sobs building up in his throat.
He shifted, and Lucy’s eyelids fluttered open. “What?” She mumbled.
“I can’t do it. I was supposed to come down here and kill you, but I can’t do it. I love you too much.” He crumbled, hands coming up to cover his face as the tears finally fell. Sobs hissed out from between his teeth as he made one final attempt to restrain them.
She sat up straight. “You thought about killing me? Why? Is that what the sword was for?” He nodded. She screamed and stood, “Oh my God. Get out of here. Get out.” Her eyes watered as she pointed at the door. “I can’t believe I ever trusted you.”
“No, Lucy,” he stared up at her, misery and saltwater slipping down his cheeks, “Please.”
“Get out of my house.”
“Let me explain myself.”
“No!” She screamed, picking up the sword and driving it blindly towards him. It sank into his chest. A look of horror dawned on her face, “No. No no no no no.” Her words came out in a whisper as she grabbed the hilt of the sword and tried to pull it out.
Jamie’s eyes were blank; it was too late.
Grandfather was called down from the house on the cliff. Mariah came instead.
She marched into the McMahon’s house with fury twisting her features and the wind in her hair. “How dare you.” She hissed, stabbing her finger into James McMahon’s face. “You have already killed both my daughters, and now my son? This is a blood feud, not a slaughterhouse.”
He blinked. “I’m sorry about your son, but we had nothing to do with your daughters. We are not in a blood feud. I am going to defend my daughter in the courts. She said your son was threatening her, and so she retaliated in self-defense.”
Mariah snarled. Their faces were inches apart, and her spit landed on his crooked red nose as she spoke. “Your daughter is a murderer, and so are you. Do not pretend any different. Do the honorable thing and take responsibility for your actions instead of blaming them on my son, whose body is still warm in your living room, bleeding onto your couch.”
The crowd of people around them rustled, tiptoeing to try to see Mariah and James face to face. Whispers ran within the crush of people. The flourist pointed to where Lucy cowered behind her father, dress splattered with blood, face streaked with tears. “I was just speaking to her,” he boasted to everyone near.
Back up in the house on the cliff, Grandfather’s body lay in his chair by the fire, a bloody hole in his chest, pipe dangling from his stiffening fingers, and Matthew sat beside the open library window, face shining with sweat and joy, cleaning the blood from his dagger.