Trigger warning: murder and physical abuse
The Apothecary Shoppe by Kyla Stan
The warmth and security of William’s Dewell’s bed made Claire Ratherford sigh with ease. Naked and unashamed, she lay next to him and felt a sense of fulfillment, but it was more than that; she felt safe in her lover’s arms, something her husband would never provide. William’s rugged hand moved a dark curl off her face, and she smiled.
William’s confined apartment with just one barely furnished room squatted in the poorest district of London. His simple life provided an escape from Claire’s husband, who had a rich abundance of antiquities and trophies, including herself. A cold winter draft escaped through a crack in the window, making both shiver under the thin blanket. Only a single candle, almost melted to the nub, kept the room illuminated in the darkness. Claire moved closer to William, so her head rested on his chest. His dirty blond hair tickled her skin. She inhaled his scent, a warming mixture of musk and cinder dust.
Only months ago, their relation was rigid and stiff: a servant and an aristocrat. Even as a servant, William was care for like the rest of the household staff…until John Ratherford saw him give his wife a white rose. Claire’s throat constricted as she remembered the embarrassment of the simple flirtation, how her husband’s outburst stunned everyone in their household and the next. William was immediately fired, leaving him a destitute worker, who could barely afford a morsel of food. Before each secret meeting, Claire made sure to smuggle perfumed bars of soap for William to sell for extra coin. She never forgot to steal the best leftovers from the kitchen so he could continue to survive.
William shifted his weight, causing the aging bed frame to creak. “Claire,” he sighed while running a calloused thumb over her shoulder. “This is wrong— I know your married, but—”
Shutting her eyes, Claire braced herself for William’s next words. Their dangerous affair had continued for months. For a poor factory worker to sleep with a married high-class woman was the equivalent of playing with fire. Not only was her reputation at risk, but John Ratherford would kill William for disgracing his “property.” Despite the risks, she didn’t want to leave him.
“—I really love you.” He smiled, melting her fears away. “You’ve been the kindest woman in my life, kinder than me own mum.”
She was stunned by his sudden revelation and felt tears trickle down her cheek.
A word her husband never used.
William sighed, and Claire noted the torn anguish in his handsome features.
She reached up to caress his cheek. “I would do anything for you.”
His blue eyes flashed with determination, but there was also a hint of fear. “Then I think it is time to put that plan we talked about into place.”
Claire pressed her forehead to William’s and kissed him, sealing their bond.
She would do anything to feel this moment forever, even if it meant giving up her luxurious lifestyle. Claire sat up and allowed the covers to drop. “We must act quickly—tonight—”
“You remember what I told you, where the old woman lives?” He questioned while lacing her corset.
Claire picked up the fractured mirror piece and made sure her dark curls fell perfectly into place. “Yes. I’ll meet you around the corner of the pub tonight.” She squeezed his hand, then opened the brittle wooden door, exposing herself to the silence that precedes a fierce blizzard. She had to move as if death rested on her shoulder; nobody must know of her mission. Claire pulled up her crimson hood to disguise her fine noble features as she stepped into the poverty-stricken district of London.
The walk to the shoppe would take longer than a horse drawn carriage, but she couldn’t risk anyone identifying her. Her snow boots with fur trim lightly padded down the cobblestone street and twice she almost slipped and fell on their iced surfaces. She cursed under her breath for time was limited. Dinner would be served at precisely 6:00 pm, God forbid anyone was a second late, including herself. John would punish her if she was the last one to arrive late—again.
Claire passed the dingy inn that was known for leering men, and women of the night who were beyond their prime. A horse tied to a post snorted and shook the cold out of its coarse mane. She urged herself forward, to hurry and not lose her wits. Claire’s eyes focused on her shoes, and she ignored the drunken laughter of men enjoying pints of ale and cheap, hot meals. She prayed silently that her husband was not in there, who was known to engage in debauchery with other men of his stature, looking to have a good time without society turning up its nose.
Claire pulled her hood tighter around her rosy cheeks and continued down the street of closed shops piled with old ashen snow on their doorsteps. Under the gas-lit lamppost, the apothecary shoppe sign greeted her with the promise of delicious sin. The sign seemed to be made of time’s oldest oak. The painted letters, once white, had faded and become rust colored that reminded her of a crusted scab. Her eyes darted left and right, searching for any prying eyes before pushing the wooden door open.
An herbaceous burning scent wafted through the store and put her nerves at ease, yet she couldn’t decipher why. A black raven sat on a pedestal at the counter and eyed her suspiciously before crowing to its master that a new customer arrived. Filled with cobwebs and dust, the shoppe seemed to have never met a maid’s dainty hand. Hundreds of jars with indiscernible contents lined the wall behind the counter. Claire could’ve sworn something wriggled in one of them.
She hesitated at the door, unsure if she should continue inside.
“Come in, child. Edgar won’t bite.” An old woman, appearing as God’s oldest creation, emerged from a hidden storage room. She hobbled to the front counter and smiled wistfully at the young girl. Her teeth were black with rot and the festered smell made Claire’s stomach lurch. The crone’s coarse white hair reminded her of frozen hay in an abandoned field.
“How can I help you today, my dear?” the woman cooed.
“I—I’ve heard you make potions for women… in need of your services.” Claire’s face reddened and she looked down at her folded hands. The raven tilted his head and ruffled his feathers, as if enjoying Claire’s discomfort.
The old woman raised her hairy eyebrows, and her warm demeanor vanished. Her blue eyes flashed as cold as the ice outside. “What do you mean, child? What potions?”
William had heard rumors of an old witch in a darker part of London who was known to grant wishes, love spells, and curses within a simple bottle. Claire was also told that the old crone would deny her sorcery in case the law recognized her talent as witchcraft, but she knew the password to unleash the woman’s hellish ways.
She met the crone’s gaze. “I need Woman’s Weapon.”
The witch began to smile at first, then cackle until her raven joined her. “You’ve come just to the right place, my sweet child!” The witch searched her shelves for various ingredients to create her potion. Her ragged black robes swooped about her ankles like a snake’s tail in a thick layer of grass. In the storage room, her cauldron began to smoke and boil, reminding Claire of hot tar. The witch carried an armful of bottles and trembled with excitement, about to unleash her morbid work.
“Petal of nightshade,
Dried skin of a dragon,
Snake venom and frog poison…
Just one last ingredient!”
She trotted over to Edgar, who had plucked one of his own feathers and presented it to his master. “Thank you, dearie.” She patted the bird on his head and went back to the cauldron. When she threw the feather into the mixture, a giant flame leaped from the cauldron before settling down to a simmer. She grabbed a wooden ladle and dipped it into the mixture, extracted a small amount, and poured it into a vial.
“My dear,” The witch whispered and gave Claire the vial. Her long-yellowed fingernails scratched at Claire hand like vulture claws. Claire placed three gold coins into the old witch’s wrinkled hands and hurried out of the shoppe with a murmured, “thank you.” She closed the door behind her and was met with a savage blizzard that blew her dark hair in scattered directions. She tucked her curls under her crimson hood and pulled her cloak tighter around her lithe frame.
Claire passed the tavern full of laughing drunks and the inn with the old horse.
The endless trudge through London made Claire’s limbs stiffen, and she clenched her teeth while rubbing her hands together. But the cold didn’t bother her as much as the witch’s cackle. Even when she hurried up the steps of her husband’s estate, the old crone still haunted her mind.
“I said get out! OUT! Do you hear me?”
The sound of a dish smashing on the floor made Claire jump as she untied her cloak. She had to be strong. It was the only way she would be free.The richly furnished estate was located in one of the wealthier parts of London, cleansed of riff-raff…and very far from William. The thought made her heart ache, but Claire tightened her jaw in determination. The overabundance of antiquities and passed-down relics from John’s ancestral line made the estate feel crowded and confined. One had to be careful when walking down a hall as to not disturb some priceless artifact.
Her eyes darted with repulsion at the multitude of stuffed trophies from John’s hunts. A lion, one of nature’s fiercest predators, was slain by the extension of John’s power, his gun. The sight sickened her, and she hurried into the dining hall.
The sound of multiple people shuffling out of the servant’s quarters made her gulp. For the first time, she was completely alone with John in the house. The thought made her want to scream in panic. He rushed toward the front hall and grabbed her by the wrist.
“There you are, little wench.”
“Ow! Please, John! I—"
“ Where have you been?” His brown eyes, almost black with a demon soul, bore into hers. His skin, scarred from smallpox, made her shutter with revulsion.
“John please— I only went for a walk—”
He encircled his arm around her waist from behind and grabbed her neck. “You look ravishing. Let’s enjoy a nice dinner,” he growled through clenched teeth. He led her down the hall to the dining room. She noticed he wore his finest dinner attire that he saved for special occasions.
With a smile, he set the eggshell-white tablecloth onto the richly polished mahogany table, set the silverware, and fine porcelain dishes. Claire was surprised when John helped her put the prepared supper on the table. She was hesitant to sit in the offered chair.
“Come, my lady. You look exhausted.”
“Quite, dear.” She sat down and was about to begin eating when John stopped her.
“Would you like some wine, love?”
“No thank you, dear. I—” She stopped.
A cold look crossed over John’s face and he stared at her. The look immediately vanished into a warm smile. “Nonsense!” He forced a little too loudly. “Let me pour you a glass.” John rose from his place at the table and walked over to the wine wrack. Claire noticed he eyed his most expensive bottle, aged to perfection and served only to those who could afford it. “You know, Claire, I’ve had a marvelous day. Business is booming. Monsieur Blanc offered me a proposition…”
Out of John’s vision, Claire began shaking violently as she reached for the vial in her blouse sleeve. She stopped. Could she kill a person so easily?
“Claire! What did I say about ignoring me? Do you want me to be angry?” John bellowed before turning back to the wine wrack.
“No, my love! I’m listening” Claire replied sweetly. With trembling hands, Claire emptied the vial’s contents into John’s plate of beef stew and mixed vigorously, making sure to place the spoon right where it had rested on the bowl’s rim. John returned with two glasses of wine and grinned. Once the delicate rims touched the table and his left hand was free, John slapped her across the face. She stifled a cry. Claire had learned not to react or face harder hits.
“Now, Claire,” he scolded. “You were supposed to pay attention when I was talking. Do you want to go into the closet again?”
“No, John. I’m sorry.” Her face stung while her eyes watered, but she would not give him the satisfaction of crying. She ate silently, listening and nodding at the appropriate times.
“You know, Claire. I was thinking about hiring that Dewell fellow again. I was wrong to let him go so easily. I hear he’s practically starving on the street,” John paused, eyes focused on her quivering bottom lip. “You two spend an awful amount of time together, don’t you? Having an affair behind my back, are you?”
The blood drained from her face. “I— I don’t know who you are talking about.”
“Come now, dear. I know all about it. I’ve seen you walk back to his… shack… while I’m at the tavern. But let’s not fret about that. Let us just enjoy dinner.” His thin lips stretched into a big smile, and his mustache twitched like a sickly predator about to pounce.
John began to slurp with gusto. “The stew is delicious! The cooks did a fabulous job. I will have to reward them with—” John grabbed his throat and coughed.
“John?” Claire put down her spoon. His grip on his throat became more urgent, and he struggled to inhale. He stood up and his chair fell backward with a deafening crack on the floor. His eyes bulged out of his sockets and his face turned the color of a plum rotting in the sun. Once he collapsed, blood pooled out of his eyes, nose, and ears.
Claire stood over the body of her dying husband and folded her hands, satisfaction and freedom taking the place of meekness. “Now, John. You know you’re not supposed to hit me… or you’ll die.”
John’s eyes widened, nearly exploding with surprise or death’s grip, Claire was unsure. Crimson flow poured out of her loving husband’s mouth, choking, suffocating, dying mouth. He convulsed once more, and then in a single shutter, let the last breath escape his poison-tainted lips.
Claire began to tremble and cry, tears forming not from her now-dead husband, but from the act of killing. From sobs formed laugher, hysterical at first, but then more melodic. “Oh, John! My darling husband,” she spat. “How long were you going to play your games? Until I died from one of your blows? Well, I guess I’m the winner, then.” Claire’s mind filled with exciting new thoughts of freedom, and a gracious smile spread across her features. She would be the owner of the estate, but more importantly, her life would not be in his choking clutches any longer. It would be in the loving embrace of William’s.
“Cheers!” Claire raised her wine glass and took a long drink. She sat down and was about to eat her dinner when her breath caught in her throat. It felt as if the life were being squeezed out of her. She reached for her throat and grasped defensively, gasping for a single breath that would allow her to hold onto her life, but the loss of air soon turned into a searing pain that started in her lungs and worked its way up her windpipe. She tried to let out a strangled cry, begging for a single, sweet breath. She collapsed, blood pooling in her eyes and mouth, the same way her husband had.
And then it hit her.
That bastard. That damn bastard wanted me dead.
As Claire took her last breath, she could hear the old witch laughing.
“An eye for an eye,
A heart for a heart,
Infidelity and wrath,
From the very start.
While one longs to love,
Another aches to kill,
All against thy own will.
For both false loves long to get even,
For every life taken, one must be given.”
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Hi Kyla, I was given your story to read from the critique circle. I like the circle, it gets me out of my regular genre and provides me with stories I often like - like yours. I do watch closely for errors as I am supposed to do, and I found a few. William was care for - love you.” He smiled, - supposed to be a comma, according to Grammarly mum.” - mum". appearing as God’s oldest creation - hah! great description. You've obviously read this over before submitting. Great! It's expected but not everybody does it. reminded her of frozen hay i...
Hi John!! Thank you so much for the wonderful critique and praise! I'd like to workshop your story, so I will check it out this week! Thanks again! Kyla
Impressive descriptions. The story is engrossing and the characters are well-constructed. The prose is clean and precise. Very nice work!
Thank you so much! I really appreciate your kind words!
Wow. A wonderful piece, Kyla. Held my attention. Rich vocabulary
Thank you very much! I appreciate your kind words! :)
Good story, and good themes! I loved that part at the end with the poem. My only critique, if I can even call it that, is that the husband poisoning Claire with the wine is a little predictable. It was still an awesome conclusion, I just saw it coming from the time he forced Claire to have wine. Awesome story, Kyla! —Tommie Michele
Hi Tommie! Thank you so much for your kind words and the respectful critique! :)