"That's the thing about this city, we can't hope to change anything without making it worse," a voice rumbled from downstairs.
"But Matthew, the council was supposed to meet the other day and discuss..."
"Oh, what do they know? A bunch of idiots. I told you, the main roads aren't functional, and the fire hydrants are still frozen."
"What difference does that make? It's winter, for crying out loud! You're aware the fire station's been shuttered for three months now, aren't you? This place is a miserable excuse for a - you know what? I'm wasting my breath!" Mr. Barlowe sputtered and pounded his cane on the marble.
Mr. Malthouse was on his fifth cigar, which spewed out with his hideous laughter. "Don't mind him. Matt's a bit uneasy tonight, men. What was it you said to that girl this afternoon?"
And they all laughed.
"Never mind, I'll be off now! Better save your breath to cool your porridge tomorrow morning. See you then, seven sharp."
"Oh, we'll be there on time. You're another story."
"Last one there's the most important. So I'll actually be arriving a quarter to eight."
The heavy door thudded closed, reverberating through the halls.
"Can't they shut up for once!" grumbled Marigold. The bathroom echoed with the combined voices of the dreary group below. The thought of the poor cook's daughter made her grimace; why couldn't the men just leave her alone? The irritating jeers directed at Cynthia made her blush every time and run to Marigold in distress, but she had no time to bring it up to the woman of the house. Add that to the list. This place was maddening, a job for a rat.
She dabbed the cream on her face. There, that should clear it up. She'd have to stop eating those hot potato chips. Her complexion couldn't take the carbs. Ten minutes hadn't even passed before she rushed back to the mirror, only to see red smears. A stinging burn was isolated to the areas where the cream had been.
"No, no, no." She turned the faucet on. No warm water because of the snow. "Must have been an expired bottle. What have I done!?" She scrambled around the ivory vanity until the drawers were rearranged just so. "There. No one will know the difference."
She slipped down the two hallways and then down each staircase, tightening her belt one last time. Awkward, with ten of them around the table waiting for her big departure.
"Well, she's down and out." Mutters circulated the small hallway which doubled as a second parlor for ad hoc gatherings. "It's time she went."
She scuttled out into the wind like a dejected beetle. Her jacket was hanging conveniently on the outermost door, so on it went. No gloves, no hat, no scarf to cover her face. What to do, where to go. The highways on either side were empty. The empty acne jar sat in the drawers of her guilty heart. Her face was what betrayed her. The redness of being caught red-handed in the cosmetics cupboard.
"Oh, why, why do I have such a guilty conscience?" Her voice echoed back to her along with some snowflakes. "That house will survive with a pint less of facial cream! Gosh, I must be crazy. Why didn't I leave earlier to catch a ride with Vicky. I could have been home and dry."
She laughed at the expression. Home and dry. Her home for tonight was possibly going to be the convenience store. The key, given to her by the pitying owners, sat coldly in her pocket. The dryness would come from what was left of her humor.
Now, wasn't it odd, the thought came to her, how the members of the house were staring as she came down the stairs.
You're imagining things.
But there was a sense of agita, a need for her to leave. So they could....what? She had to know. She circled back and pushed her numb feet forward. The driveway was empty except for a figure shoveling. He could have seen her, he could have not. All that mattered were her questions. Why did she leave, and what made them need her out?
She'd gotten lucky before. A nod from the woman, an offer to stay the night. And that was in the summertime, when the balmy nights allowed for a park bench slumber. They don't make beggars like they used to. She smiled inside.
She looked through the mail slot to be sure no one was in the foyer. Then she pushed the door inwards ever so carefully. The voices inside were subdued, but she felt the same nervous feeling. And it had nothing to do with her red face.
The foyer was welcomingly warm. "Where was that light again? Oh yes, here." The dial that turned the room red. Just what she needed to cover her face in case anyone found her there.
The greyhound pawed at the other side of the door, and Marigold jumped. Relax. Just listen.
"...a minute. There's something we need to discuss."
"If it doesn't involve the woman, I don't want to hear it."
"Which woman?" a distracted voice asked.
"Her! The one who left twenty minutes ago. There's something...I don't know, wrong about her."
"How do you know? She's incapable of stealing. We all watched her leave. What do you think? She'd lug away a pouch of jewelry?"
"No, not that. I think I know what Sammy's saying. It's like she knows too much. That sneaky smile."
"Sneaky or not, I hired her, and she's been covering her bases. Leave it at that, please, and let me worry about household matters. You focus on the city's problems, alright?"
Someone chuckled. "Yes, ma'am! Pass the whiskey."
A bottle popped open.
What in heaven's name? Her mind was all over the place. Would they pull open the door and reveal her, crouched over like some accursed witch? Would the shoveler come inside?
Leave, leave, the alarms went off. But she stayed because she knew she should. The answer was coming.
"Well I say we fire her," came another voice.
"Why are are we talk-k-king about t-t-his? It's time t-t-o go to bed. Who, who kn-n-nows if we'll ev-v-ven b-be al-live t-t-tom-mor-r-row," an unidentified voice stammered out.
Who was that? Marigold's mind raced to recall. The voice was so achingly familiar, it haunted her. Howard used to stutter like that. Mum always said that her son's funeral was the most empty of affairs, the space between the rows of pews like the space between each of his syllables.
She replayed the man's sentence in her mind. It sounded so ominous and calming at the same time.
They all laughed strangely.
"What did you mean by that? Were you drinking?"
The stutterer didn't say anything. Then he said, "Jus-st an expres-s-s-ssion. Means n-n-ot to think ab-ab-out...things t-t-oo..."
"Much!" an annoyed person shot out. "Alright, I suppose that clears that up. Tomorrow is another day! Sleep off the alcohol so we can have a productive meeting with city council, you hear?"
The sounds of them stumbling up to bed lasted for a long time.
Almost a century if she had time to count. But she was too busy unscrewing the detector off the ceiling. Only one in the house. How convenient. The convenience store's screwdriver was, too. She stuffed a hand in her pocket. The strike of the match flared her nostrils.
The red of the flame danced against the red of her stolen-cream-burnt face. The crimson foyer light suddenly seemed an angelic white. Just a smear, she chuckled softly. A simple smear was all she needed. A smear of her visage, a baseless smear of her trustworthiness. What would be next? She didn't want to know. And she'd never have to.
She pulled the door open - fully open - and tossed the match on the table. The chandeliers shone with the soft tremulous light of the growing blaze. Her other hand unwrapped the bar of chocolate, which she thrust at the greyhound's watering mouth.
Goodbye, old boy.
Outside, the shoveler moved on down the street. She rushed over to him and pulled on his arm. He jumped around to look at her smiling countenance.
"Who knows if we'll even be alive tomorrow, aye? Good night, boy!"
He stared back dumbly as her laugh rattled down the road. She reached for her bag of hot chips and took a bite.
She just loved the feel of fire on her tongue.