(Author's note: this is another experimental piece. Determine the killer. If you want to add your answer to the comments, feel free!)
That practiced smile.
It’s pinned to her cheeks, peeled back over her teeth, tightened into place. And as fleeting as she’d like it to be, it’s stuck—for hours, for days. This entire week will see glimpses of it until her lips crease. Because she hates the holidays.
And she hates me.
“Backroom.” Mother gestures behind her.
Fold me into the furthest corner.
“Right.” I return that smile. It glides over my teeth, only revealing my discomfort briefly. “Love Christmas, don’t you?” The question provides me no end of satisfaction. It falters her expression, falters her well-built façade. And for that moment, I see the truth.
That’s what I prefer.
“Who’s at the do—Lawrence.” Now there’s a woman who can’t hide her distaste for me. Her manicured brows ease up her forehead, then drop in a scowl. Perfect features. Perfect mannerisms. Dreadful disposition. A model sibling. “Who invited him?”
“Me,” I answer. The scrape of my suitcase wheels accentuates my statement. In the silence of the entry hall, it wills their attention to me. “Happy holidays, Ria.”
“Out,” she shouts. “Get out. Right now!” Her hand trembles as she jabs her finger towards the door.
Murder me in the snowstorm.
“Ria.” Mother holds up a hand before turning to me. “You’ll stay in the backroom. Don’t wander. Don’t interact. Meals. That’s it.” Orders from my captain. I salute her. Pretending I’m the worst person in the room isn’t hard. That’s my default—for them, anyway. Any actions I take bloom from that ground level. A smile? Even psychopaths gain joy from something. An offering? Psychopaths are wont to manipulate. A loving gesture? Don’t let the psychopath touch you. It might be contagious.
I’m not. A psychopath, I mean.
But one of them is.
Hang me by the chandelier.
“Backroom.” She’s a demanding sort—mother.
—————— † ——————
It leans at the height of the tree, where it’s been perched since I was a child. Every year sees a further tilt. Her good nature is wilting. The smile once painted on her porcelain lips has long since rubbed away. The blush in her naturally highlighted cheeks has dulled. And the red lace she claimed her dress is all but rotted. Father never considers the moisture in the attic an issue—never considered.
But it is.
“Mother said you’d be here.”
“Chimney’s black,” I retort.
“You shouldn’t have come. If not for yourself, then for me. The tension’s unbearable.”
“Bricks are worn.”
“Lawrence. Speaking nonsense never worked before. You can’t frighten me with—whatever this persona is.” He steps to my side, sharing my focus on the fireplace.
Throw me in the firepit.
Our hair texture matches. Our noses share the same length. And our shoulders sit strong over our barrelled chests—father’s shoulders. Andrew. Twins born of different mothers. Twins born in different years in a family where the youngest is adorned in every family secret and mistake.
“It hasn’t been used since.”
“Ah.” He considers resting a hand on my shoulder but hesitates. “That’s what happens when the whole family goes into mourning. Though I suppose you wouldn’t know anything about that. You resented him. And he, you.”
—————— † ——————
It’s been in the family for decades. The old walls scream with the wind and whisper complaints in the middle of the night. From now until it collapses, it will have only sleepless nights. Between the residents that wear its patience thin to the guests that taint the once holy ground it was built on, our estate drags itself closer to death.
Barricade me in the cellar.
Snow soaks through the seat of my trousers. The garden has always been my space. I had the green thumb. I had the interest in flowers. I had the obsession with weeding. That made me the spade. The spade.
Spade through my skull.
No space is empty. Five residents gravitate to where I am. Are they watching me? Keeping tabs?
“What are you doing out here?”Lynn. The one before. Her wiry hair lies in a tousle on her head. Scrawny arms are tucked in white fabric. White. Not even the angel wears white. She’s overcompensating for morals that dwell in darker territory. Because under the white, she’s an all-consuming void. Father had poor taste.
“Sitting,” I state.
“In a snowstorm?” She shuffles to my side, lowering herself opposite me. The stone bench where we linger is aged. It's met many a backside.
“You’re following me in a snowstorm.”
“Well, I—Ria thought it was best.” She folds her gloved hands in her lap. White leather. White fur trim. White stitches.
“For you to be alone with me?” My words emanate from the depths of my lungs. A growl. A warning. A taunt.
“A-alone?” Her gaze wanders the garden around us. We’re secluded. But I remain still.
In the dark. When we’re alone.
“Are you afraid?” I whisper. A blood-curdling scream whips through the wind around us. From her throat. Through her lips. When she realizes I haven’t moved, she rests a hand on her chest. Slapping it with gentle fingers, she tries to catch her breath.
“You have a nasty humor! Death. We’re referring to death!” she hisses. “Amber was Ria’s childhood friend.”
—————— † ——————
Panted and moist. It echoes in the hallway. With a clatter. A rumble. And the slap of shoes on rubber. It doesn’t mesh with the decor around it: Victorian inspiration in rugs, plants, and gold-framed portraits of ancestors. Then that mechanical whir, deafening any who happen upon the room. But the curiosity lures me.
“Lawrence!” Mother’s new beau—Terril. With a stumble, he hops from his treadmill and braces himself against the wall.
Drive my face through the tread.
“It was loud.” I enter the makeshift gym. Heirlooms are now shoved into tight corners, straining against one another. The paintings father adored are replaced by a widescreen television. And in place of father’s piano, there’s a weight set.
“Sorry.” Terril laughs. It’s hysteric.
“This was father’s,” I explain.
A serpentine flick of the tongue over dry lips. The twitch of a caught mouse in a flitting gaze. And the vibration of his heart under the skin of his throat. He’s young. Too young. Mother found him at the university where she once taught. When I’m not around, he’s surely the bearer of the family’s distrust.
“Right,” he finally whispers. “Your mother offered it to me…”
“Mother doesn’t think things through.” I’m as close to him as I’d like to be—distant. But he seems to think we’re too close. With every other sentence, a cautious step back. So, they’ve told him. I’m at ground level with him, too.
“She’s a wonderful woman.”
Sink your teeth in and poison me.
“She was nothing but kind to me after my wife died.” Hands on hips. He taps a toe to the floor. It’s distracting. Unnecessary. It eases my gaze to the stone. White marble. White. “Her death almost ruined me. I lost my will. But your mother—Opal is just my cure.”
Gag me with bile.
“I-I figured you’d understand because your wife...Amber was a lovely woman.”
—————— † ——————
—————— † ——————
“Dinner,” mother announces, knuckle to my door. “I’ll only warn you once. Start an argument with Howard again and I will disown you. Ria doesn’t need the stress this Christmas. You’ve done enough damage. It’s hard enough having you here at all.”
“No promises.” I open the door. White fabric curls around her frame. It constricts her at the waist. And bites into the skin at her shoulders. Thin straps. Sharp edges. But it flows past her feet. A puddle of white frothing along the wood.
“No.” She blocks my path. “You will promise me, or you won’t eat.”
“He’s earned high respect.”
“He deserves it unlike you.” A pulse in her jaw. Beads of moisture in the corners of her eyes—green, like father’s. Panic forming in her chest. Anxiety. Fear. She reaches for it subtly, one hand mirroring Lynn’s. A pat on her chest.
“What has he done?” My own anxiety. It pricks at the back of my neck. Thin needles driving under the flesh. Tugging. Itching. Nagging.
“What has he done to deserve it?” I repeat.
“For one, he didn’t kill someone," she snaps. Kill.
I laugh. It gurgles with hatred. It echoes with vehemence. It shatters the tension with ferocity. And then it blankets the silence. Her brows knit as her eyes widen. Just like Lynn. Just like Ria. Just like Terril. And Andrew.
“Who hasn’t killed?”
—————— † ——————
“I’m the gift-bearer this year.” Wrapped packages. Gift bags. Glitter. Bows.
“What is he doing?” Ria gasps. She directs her question to mother, who has gone stiff. Her mind is focused on our interaction. And her fear is still wading in the back of her mind. Sorry, mother. You’ve made me this way. Badger me. Mold me. Break me. And this is what I become.
“That’s a nice, uhm, surprise,” Terril reasons. He glances around for reassurance. But gains none.
“The murderer is playing the fat man?” Howard. Maroon hair slicked back from a broad forehead. Metal pockmarking pointed ears. And unnaturally sharp teeth gleaming under string lights. “Ria, your brother is losing it. Finally, losing it.”
“Lawrence,” Ria pleads. “Stop doing this. It’s not a good surprise… It’s creepy.”
“He…” Andrew reaches for his present. “He’s trying.”
“No.” Ria stands from her seat. “No. No. NO!” Reaching across the table, she rips the gift from Andrew’s hand. And she throws it. It strikes me in the cheek. But I maintain that smile; the smile mother lives by. The smile that she chiseled into me.
“Hey!” Andrew grabs her wrist. An empty gesture. She already threw it.
“T-they never proved it…” Terril interjects. Half-hearted defense.
“But he did it! He should’ve never been freed.” Ria’s wide gaze locks onto me. “Howard saw him.”
Watch me die.
See how I squirm.
“Maybe it’s best if you wait on the gifts.” Terril eyes me. “After dinner o-or—”
“—or never.” Ria slams back into her seat. “If only Amber could curse the very ground you stand on.”
—————— † ——————
“Someone say grace before this dinner ends in a fatality.” Both hands cover mother’s face. She’s beyond distraught.
“Allow me,” Howard offers, standing with his wine glass. Grace, not a toast. “I want to thank mom for her invitation. She’s been gracious to me from day one with Ria, even though I was a right mess. Thank you for shaping me into someone worth having around.”
Shatter the glass over my head.
“Hear, hear,” Terril raises his glass in agreement. Then chugs it. “I’d like to add a few words of my own.”
“Sit down,” Lynn warns him. “We’re in no mood for sap.”
“No, please.” Mother gestures for him to stand. “I need a shower of gratitude.”
“My lovely wife, Opal. You are a”—Terril hiccups, swaying forward—“sexy fox.”
“Okay!” Andrew forces Terril back into his seat. I’m not the only one being silenced. But I won’t be. No matter how they try. One of them is guilty and even if they’ve thwarted my gift scheme, I still plot. What words? What memories? What accusations?
“I’m sick,” Ria mumbles, pushing her plate away. “Having him here is disrupting my appetite.” All eyes drift to me. Now they’ll notice I have yet to touch my silverware. Or my food. I’m not here to eat. Similar to Ria, my appetite is on hold.
With all eyes on me, this is my stage.
—————— † ——————
“Did she ask to die?” My gaze lifts from the table. “Did she beg to end her life? Is that why you did it?” The room falls to silence. I’m not addressing anyone in particular. I want the guilt to fester until it eats its way out. One of them will crack.
“You’re really—” Howard begins, but his voice breaks.
“Because I’ve thought of every proposition she could have made if she did,” I begin, rising from my seat. “None of them make sense. So, if she didn’t ask to die, why did you kill her?” I wait for the accusations from Ria, mother, even Howard. They don’t come. The silence persists, stalking across the dinner table and back again. It’s holding them to their seats. Holding them to their guilt. But will it be enough to make the killer prey? Or will the predator in them need to rear its monstrous taste?
“Who would ask to die?” Howard exhales a manic breath.
“What?” Ria whips to face him.
My feet carry me onto my seat. Then the table wobbles beneath me. It groans and creaks with my weight. Who would ask to die? It worms through my thoughts. No. I tilt my head. No. No. That’s not an admission of guilt. It’s resonating through the silence. But from where? My gaze shifts from one face to another. They’re all guilty. They’re all innocent. They all quiver and retreat in the face of my insanity.
But it’s not me.
“Alone.” I moisten my lips. “Overcompensating for something.”
“What?” Ria reaches out for me. But I avoid her grasp.
“Wait,” Andrew climbs onto the table behind me. “Wait. It’s been two years since...the incident, Lawrence. Why are you coming back and accusing your family for something you did?” He turns me to face him. “I’m not saying you meant for it to happen but everyone here knows it did. Not to mention, Howard saw you.”
“Howard never saw me,” I answer. Sure and steady. Because I didn’t kill her.
“Yes, he di—” Ria begins, only to be interrupted.
“—No, actually. I didn’t.” Howard lowers his gaze to the floor, refusing to make eye contact. That’s his guilt. The guilt he’s been flooding through the room. But it’s not just him. “But Terril told me to!”
“What?!” In his drunken stupor, Terril slaps a hand on the table. “All I said was he’s the guilty-looking sort.” More guilt, pouring from intoxicated thoughts.
“I...I may have told Terril that I heard Amber telling you she was going to end things, and you probably went insane and murdered her for it…” This time it’s Lynn.
“You were supposed to keep that to yourself!” Ria shouts. “I didn’t want him to know that she—”
“—That was hardly a secret. She was telling everyone,” Andrew argues.
“Enough!” Mother above them all.
Six guilty people. Six innocent people. I just want answers. One of them has to come forward and explain it to me. I wait. There must be some explanation. They must have some reason for killing my wife and blaming it on me. They hate me, but Amber? Amber was real. She was genuine. And the growth she caused in others was permanent. Her incredible being should have been permanent.
I ease toward the corner of the table, where mother is glaring into a glass of white wine. It trembles. With every breath she inhales, it shudders. And tear stains. They’re lining her cheeks. Black mascara that drips onto her white dress.
“It wasn’t me.” It’s the first time I’ve claimed the words. But she lifts a hand to silence me. Why do they keep trying to silence me? “You’re so cold. You’re all so cold!”
The lights crackle out.
Darkness floods the room. No amount of street light can penetrate the windows. Panic begins around me. Shouts. Complaining. Fumbling. I crawl towards the edge of the table and climb down to the floor. Somewhere in this room, there are candles. Somewhere, there are matches, too. But it’s been so long since I was last in the house, I have no wherewithal. I reach to steady myself.
And glass shatters over my head.
“Will you ask to die?”