As soon as I took a sip, I realized it was poison. Dark stars flickered in my peripherals. I stood up and lunged at the man seated across from me.
“Where is she?” I screamed.
My white knuckles gripped his lapels, but suddenly my hands gave out. I would’ve fallen over if he hadn’t stood up to steady me. I swatted his arms away and stumbled out of the great room to the hallway.
“Catherine?” I cried. But my voice was small, growing weaker with every black spot that appeared in my vision.
Staggering down the hall, I called her as I frantically checked each room. I was about to attempt the stairs, but my legs melted and I fell onto my hands, gasping for breath. My brain urged my legs to stand up, but I was frozen in place: paralyzed by poison. Only a few moments remained for me. I’d failed her.
My eyes shot open as I awoke, darting my gaze around the room to figure out where I was. Cottage. Home. Catherine.
Catherine? I looked to my left where she usually lay, but there were only cold, empty sheets. Her prescriptions sat unopened on the nightstand. I’d fallen asleep first, but she’d promised that she’d take them before bed. I cursed aloud. I expected to find her knitting in the main room, her mind entrenched in thoughts, but this room, too, was cold and empty. The window was open and wintry air blew in, scattering hospital forms off the dining table and across the floor. I ran to shut the window, then dressed myself quickly. As I suspected, the front door was unlocked, and snow tracks led the way from our cottage into our patch of the woods.
“Catherine!” I called, hand cupped around my mouth. “Catherine, it’s me, Michael! Come back!”
Somehow, I knew the tracks would continue into the woods that weren’t ours. It was in this area that they found her last year: freezing and alone, muttering words of confusion. This was not happening again.
“Hello! Catherine! Can you hear me?”
“Hello?” a voice called from behind some trees. I ran towards it.
“Catherine! Come, it’s me!” But I stopped short, because although it was a woman I found, it wasn’t my wife.
“Amelia. What are you doing here?” She lived behind our house, far away from this stretch of the forest.
“You must come.” She said, her eyes dark – not looking at me, but looking through me.
“Where’s your husband? Do you know where Catherine is?” I asked. She ignored me and turned, slowly marching through the thick snow. I followed. Icy branches cracked under our feet, and chilling winds howled through the trees. We came to the end of Catherine’s tracks, the woods opening to an enormous multistory house. They must’ve owned these woods. I looked at Amelia, but she just pointed at the house. I took one step towards it, and the front doors clicked open, falling ominously outward with a long creak, as if expecting visitors. I’d never seen this house before, but then again, I’d never dared back to those fateful woods- too many dark memories.
When I reached the threshold, I glanced back for Amelia, but she was gone. Turning back toward the house, I also screamed, because there was a tall man standing in the entryway. He looked at me, hands behind his back, dressed sharply, wearing a top hat. Perhaps the butler. My heart finally stopped racing, and I cleared my throat.
“Hello, sir. I am looking for my wife, Catherine.” He stood unflinchingly still, eyeing me, then, stepped aside and motioned upstairs.
“Tea will be held in the great room.”
“You don’t understand. My wife. She’s missing. She’s not well, and shouldn’t be alone. Can you help me?”
“All will be revealed in the great room.” I sighed and conceded. He took my coat, and I ventured upstairs. The house was regally decorated. I looked for signs of Catherine. Snow tracked in, her coat, her boots…her body… I winced at the thought. But there was nothing. In the great room, the walls were adorned with portraits of past queens. Two fancy armchairs sat in the center, with a side table in the middle. We took our seats, and I was trying not to seem rude, but I had other things to do than have tea. I twiddled my fingers anxiously. Why had she fled? What thoughts were flooding her mind this time?
A woman carried in a tray and set it down. I thanked her as she poured my tea. It’s charcoal-black. I looked up at her as she offered me the teacup. She had the same expression as Amelia: looking through me, their minds somewhere else. Reluctantly, I accepted the strange brew.
“You ask me what I know of your wife.” The butler sat across from me. I jumped at the chance for answers.
“Yes, have you seen her? Did she come here?” He clicked his tongue three times.
“Such a shame that the only time husbands wish to care for their wives is when they’re in distress. Always the heroes.” I didn’t understand.
“What? I love Catherine.”
“I suppose you do.” This was a game to him. “But here, we believe in a freer approach. Free from your bonds.”
“Bonds? Catherine’s not trapped, she’s sick! I care for her-”
“And why do you think she became troubled in the first place? Left to solitude all day in the house while you’re off in the world.” He paused.
“Do drink your tea, it’ll get cold.” I felt his words urging me to drink, so I do. “These poor maidens. Someone had to set them free.”
I lay dying on the floor. Paralyzed by poison. I’d never reach her. Several outlines of women stood above me.
“This one’s done.” I heard him say.
From the crowd, a shadow stepped forward, then my world went black. But I still saw her.