Chapter One: Red Dressed Shame
She looked into the oval-shaped mirror, her eyes falling to the plain black hole peeking out from underneath her dress at her. There it is, she thought, brushing her finger tips against it. The hole was black and bottomless, no markings or anything beautiful surrounding it; with each pounding of her heart she could feel it moving against her skin. She pulled her dress down, exposing her bodice and the secret it was hiding.
There, was her heart. Or, at least, what was supposed to be her heart. Instead of normal flesh and skin, as someone might normally see, covering her heart was one keyhole. The hole covered her whole heart, where skin should have been, and looked just as it had the last time she dared herself to look at it.
She hated to look at her heart, the bare skin and plain keyhole. It reminded her of what every person must now endure, what they are all bound to. That no one’s heart may be broken anymore, that they are safe by their locked hearts. But, what if your heart does not have a key?
She pushed the thoughts out of her mind, clearing her throat, as she pulled her bodice up. Once again, she was herself. How interesting that once one part of you is concealed, you look yourself again. She stared at her face and still found it looking quite odd and unnatural. My smile looks too forced… She took a deep breath and looked blankly at the mirror, once again smiling. This time it looked real and she was satisfied with it as she stood up, leaving the room.
She turned around and shut the bedroom door slowly, making sure it didn’t squeak. Mother is going to be absolutely furious at me, she thought, inwardly sighing. Her low-heeled shoes clicked softly against the worn carpeting on the second floor as she made her way down the hall. Emerging from the hallway, one could look over the banister and see the front hall as well as a glimpse into the dining room. She was on the first floor now, her heels clicking loudly against the acacia wood floors.
She knew that everyone could hear her now, for she was almost into the dining room. With gritted teeth and tightly closed lips she entered, feeling everyone’s eyes on her as she sat down. Mr. Rutherford, a gentleman of the tender age of twenty sat on her right and Mr. Brindley, a man she dare not call a gentleman, was of the ripe age of thirty, sat on her left. Silently condemning her mother for having asked the men to change seats while she was away, she sat down and looked at her plate.
Mrs. Kathleen Harris, her mother, cleared her throat politely. “Dahlia, have you met Mr. Brindley and Mr. Rutherford?” She asked, her voice having an almost undetectable tone of coldness, but her daughter caught this.
“No, Mother, I do not believe I have had the pleasure of meeting either. The gentlemen were sitting next to Miss Aspen and Miss Elinor; I cannot possibly fathom why they are sitting next to me.” Dahlia replied with just as much coldness, looking up from her plate to across the table, where her mother was sitting. She saw her mother’s cheeks go taunt for a moment, as though her face was having a battle with itself to stay calm. Calmness triumphed and within an instant, her mother’s face had resumed its cooled composure.
“If you had not so rudely departed, showing to our guest that you do not wish to know their company, then I believe it highly fitting that you sit by them so that you may get to better acquaint yourself with them.” Mrs. Harris said, her voice a hushed whisper, the idle chatter of Dahlia’s father and sisters hiding the words from the others’ ears.
She had just opened her mouth to smartly reply to this comment when her father, Mr. William Harris, loud voice boomed across the room. “Let dinner be served! Please let it not hinder your jovial conversations. Though, I must confess, the cook’s chocolate pudding is quite delectable, I exhort you to try it.” Her father said, addressing specifically those on either side of her, who smiled politely in return.
This was her least favorite part of the whole evening; where one had to physically put forth the effort to talk to the guests. They are never truly guests, she thought idly, watching the servants bring out the dishes for the meal. They are skillfully picked possible-husband prospects, she thought sourly, leaning slightly to the left, not wanting the new server boy to spill her meal on her dress (again) as he set her plate down. Because of this action, she accidentally brushed shoulders with Mr. Brindley, who seemed mildly pleased at the action. Confound it! Her back stiffened as she quickly straightened herself, mechanically cutting a radish in her salad into even tinier pieces.
Mr. Brindley began cutting his food as well and she noted how much hair he had on fingers and knuckles; she never even knew that men could grow hair on their fingers! Dahlia forced herself to look away from his fingers, her eyes now glued to her leaf covered salad plate. Now thoroughly disgusted, she attempted to swallow a few leafy greens to calm her queasy stomach.
“How has this evening been treating you, Miss Dahlia?” Mr. Rutherford asked, his voice so soft that she almost leaned in to hear what he said.
“I have been absolutely grand, Mr. Rutherford, thank you for asking!” She replied with almost an obnoxious tone of zest. She dared a glance at Mr. Brindley’s fingers, immediately wishing she hadn’t. Her loud tone of voice earned her a stern glare from her mother. Dahlia glanced over at Mr. Rutherford’s hands, watching him cut a carrot, and to her enormous relief she discovered his fingers hairless. Just like fingers are supposed to be. We are not cave men! Proper men, she sent Mr. Brindley a scathing glare, are not to have hair growing out of their fingers like some man from the Stone Ages!
The rest of the evening passed without much word from either man, though Mr. Brindley did try much harder than Mr. Rutherford to engage her in conversation. She feared that her zesty tone had sent quiet Mr. Rutherford even farther into his shell. Dahlia now regretted her loudness, for it was quite lonely sitting next to a man with hairy fingers and a man who is too shy to converse with you.
After dinner, the party moved to the drawing room. The two gentlemen sat on the opposite side of the room, facing the girls, while their parents sat facing the other wall. There, wearing a crimson dress, Aspen flounced into the room, ever so childishly, as she seated herself at the piano.
Dahlia did her best to control her annoyance as her sister began pounding on the piano, serenading the men with an ungodly song. She dared a glance at her mother, who once more wore a look of tenseness in her face, though this time at least it was not directed at her. Why must she show off to every company that we keep who dare walk through the front door? Dahlia thought reproachably, brooding, as she plopped down next to her youngest sister, Elinor.
The two women watched as Aspen embarrassed their family ever so unashamedly in front of their two gentlemen guest. Mr. Rutherford was very polite and hid his shock well, which Dahlia applauded him for. Whereas Mr. Brindley, whom she did not consider a gentleman at all, wore a cruel smirk on his face as Aspen finished her song.
The party clapped politely but she could see Mr. Rutherford glancing at herself and Elinor fearfully, worried that he may have to endure another pounding of his eardrums. Mrs. Harris cleared her throat as Aspen arose from the piano bench, bowing dramatically. Dahlia almost smirked at the thought that her sister might be imagining the crowd throwing her roses, as one might see at a play. Thankfully, her mother cleared her throat again, louder, so that the family could quickly compose themselves.
“Thank you, Miss Aspen, for that lovely serenading.” Mrs. Harris said, her face clearly showing that she had not thought it lovely at all. But Aspen was oblivious to her mother’s chiseled look as she seated herself next to Elinor on the drawing room couch.
There was silence for a few moments after Mrs. Harris’s comment and Dahlia feared that her sister had rendered their guests deaf! After this thought, however, Mr. Rutherford smiled, though very forced it was, and complimented Aspen on her “heavenly playing”. It took all of Dahlia’s control not to snicker at this remark but thankfully she had enough self-control to bite her lip. She glanced at Elinor, who was sitting in-between Aspen and herself, noting that her younger sister neither looked amused nor horrified. Her face was expressionless but Dahlia doubted that her mind was as blank as her face appeared.
“Why thank you, Mr. Rutherford, my grandmother did a fine job of teaching me such a splendid instrument to play.” Aspen replied, with a girlish giggle, basking in the praise. Mr. Brindley, however, remained silent and Dahlia thanked him wordlessly for it. She did not think she could endure more girlish giggles and childish bats-of-eyes from her sister.
Her father cleared his throat and asked the gentlemen if they would assist him in some evening politics. Both gentlemen hastily agreed and Mr. Rutherford would have run into the door, had the butler not been paying attention. The moment that their father and their guests had left, the four women were silent for several moments. Dahlia dare not meet her mother’s eyes and kept them instead glued on the drawing room floor. There was a slow intake of breath, and their mother began her assault.
“Aspen,” she said. Her voice was a hushed whisper, sending Dahlia’s arms into a shudder of goose bumps. “How can you be so daft as to treat our company in such a shameful fashion? Your poor grandmother is undoubtedly rolling in her grave at the utter disgrace you are bringing down on the heads of the Harris family!” Mrs. Harris’s voice had not risen in octave but that is what her daughters found most deadly of all. When one is mad, a person most normally exclaims and yells. However, with Mrs. Harris, she was the exact opposite; the softer her voice, the more upset she truly was.
Aspen attempted to justify her childish actions but it fell on deaf ears as their mother continued fuming and whispering. Dahlia dare not look at her mother’s eyes, for she undoubtedly knew that they would be two hard orbs of grey granite, eyes that penetrated the soul when anger was aroused. The silence that followed Mrs. Harris’s final outburst, Dahlia could hardly stand as she glanced at Aspen.
However, she could not pity her as she saw her sister’s eyes began to water. For, it seemed as though every time their family entertained guests, the middle sister always scared them away. Mrs. Harris was bound and determined to have all three of her daughters married before she left the earth. Aspen, unfortunately, kept on foiling her plans each time. Or one could think of it as fortunately, Dahlia mused, trying to feint a look of disapproval in case her mother glanced at her.
With the stiff silence in the drawing room, the four women could hear the rising voices in the parlor.
“You believe Mr. Stanberry to be the solution to our country, do you Mr. Brindley?” The four women could hear Mr. Harris say. His voice was oddly loud and Dahlia could not help but wonder what had upset her father so. Mrs. Harris was naturally the one in the household who had loud outbursts, but never their father.
“Yes, Sir, yes I do!” Mr. Brindley fired right back, just as loud, if not an octave higher. It was though the walls separating the two parties fell away and in her mind Dahlia could imagine poor Mr. Rutherford huddled in the corner of her father’s study as the two men argued.
But, as the four women eavesdropped, they could hear Mr. Rutherford’s polite voice loud and clear through the walls. “I do not believe that what Mr. Stanberry is doing is not sensible at all. Do pardon me, Mr. Brindley, for my political standings.” The last sentence was said with a hint of sarcasm, Dahlia could not help but smirk at this new side of Mr. Rutherford that she was hearing.
However, all good things must come to an end and at that moment, Mrs. Harris decided it was the end. “Girls, how can we have acted in such a manner? Eavesdropping on Mr. Harris’s conversation with our company!” Mrs. Harris looked appalled, the fabric of her dress rustling as she stood up. “Come along, now!” She barked, not waiting for the butler to open the door as she stormed into the parlor, feinting surprise at the gentlemen’s astonished faces. “Why! I do beg your pardon, gentlemen! I had not a thought in my mind that you were so raptured by each other’s conversation that you had yet to even make it into Mr. Harris’s study!” Hurriedly, all the girls were ushered out of the parlor, Mrs. Harris closely behind them.
The many heels clicking on the wood floor, echoing around the main hall, sounded oddly eerie to Dahlia as her and her sisters climbed the stairs. Their mother did not follow them; instead she went into her own study at the foot of the stairs where she kept all the land’s papers and employee documentation. During the day, the office was always full of people. In the evening, however, Mrs. Harris enjoyed going into her office for late-night sewing.
Once their mother had closed her office door, Aspen collapsed into a fit of giggles. “I am sure that Mr. Rutherford will call again. Oh, he is so gentlemanly and kind. Did you hear of the sweet way he complimented me on my playing? And how he stood up to Mr. Brindley, so bold he is, so bold.” She ended her ramblings with a sigh as the three sisters began walking down the second-floor hallway. Aspen bid her sisters goodnight first, her bedroom the first they passed.
Dahlia and Elinor walked several more steps, waiting to hear the click of Aspen’s door shutting. When this sound met their joyful ears, they turned sharply to the left, rushing into Dahlia’s room. Now out of sight of anyone except themselves, the two collapsed into the most humorous of giggles.
“Did you see the way she flounced about the drawing room? Oh goodness, I could hardly stand it! I nearly laughed!” Gasped Elinor as she collapsed onto Dahlia’s bed, staring up at the high white ceiling.
Her older sister only smiled in return, the sight of her mirror draining her happiness. It was attached to the sitting table where she applied her makeup. Mrs. Harris had told her many a time, many a time, of how the table and mirror had belonged to Dahlia’s great-great-grandmother. She must have loved looking at herself, many women do. That, however, was before the keys.
Her eyes darted to the partially hidden box under her dresser. That was where her key lay, the key that would fit in her husband’s heart. She had never seen it before; too scared was she of what it would look like. Would it look as plain and as ugly as her keyhole? What did her future-husband’s key for her look like? Was it black and pointed, jagged and abused? Faceless and ugly? Depthless, emotionle-
“Dahlia.” Elinor’s quiet voice roused her from her dark thoughts as she glanced over at her. “What were you looking at?” It was an innocent question but Dahlia somehow felt threatened by it, that Elinor knew her fears.
“Nothing, nothing at all.” She answered stiffly, yawning loudly behind her hand. “I am most sorry, Elinor dear, but Aspen’s performance wore me out quite dreadfully. I am afraid I will be going to bed early tonight.” Her younger sister laughed, smiling kindly at her. Dahlia felt a pang for lying to her. She may understand, Dahlia… A voice whispered in her mind but fear held her mouth shut as she opened the door for Elinor, bidding her goodnight.
For several moments after her sister’s departure, Dahlia leaned against her bedroom door, breathing deeply. She could feel her heart pounding against the metal hole with each rise and fall of her skin. Slowly, she walked over to the mirror and slipped her dress of her head, staring in front of the mirror in only her bodice and undergarments. Dahlia did this almost every night, not being able to stop herself from staring at the bottomless hole in her skin. Lately, she had been challenging herself to not look at the keyhole, to focus on her face instead. All men see are my face, not my keyhole. Which makes the whole predicament almost easier because my face is a tad prettier than my keyhole. She smiled shyly at her reflection, walking closer, as Dahlia sat down in the chair in front of the mirror.
She ran a hand over her moon-pale cheeks, briefly brushing her bright red lips. Her grey eyes, eyes that she shared with her mother and Aspen, hardened her expression and made her look more intense then she intended to appear. Dahlia ran her fingers through her long black hair, hair that stopped slightly below her collarbone when taken out of its up-dos. Reminded of this, she began to take out the pins in her hair, as it began to slowly cascade down her back, bouncing happily that it had been set free. Dahlia stood up, walking over to her closet as she searched for a nightgown. Content with a silken periwinkle one, she slid it over head, making her way to the queen bed on the other side of the room.
After turning down the oil lamp and pulling the covers up to her chin, she stared at the darkness. The darkness, in turn, stared right back. Soon, it became heavy, suffocating, her mind torn between reality and dreams as she drifted in and out of sleep.
She was laying next to a small pond, basking in the summer sunshine, a smile pulling at her lips at the feeling of the sun’s warm rays. Hearing the footsteps of someone walking towards her, she turned her head towards the noise. Her eyebrows rose in surprise at the sight of Mr. Rutherford. As he grew closer, she could see that he was holding something, a wooden box in his hands.
Reaching her, with a surprisingly beautiful smile parting his lips, he hesitantly opened the box, glancing at her nervously. Inside was the most hideous key she had ever seen. Its grooves were harshly cut, jagged almost. The key was a dark black, thorny rose vines engraved along the side.
Mr. Rutherford looked up into her eyes, barely hiding his distaste at the sight of this key. With a jolt, she realized it was her key. “It is beautiful, just like you…” Mr. Rutherford mused, taking the key out of the wooden box. She was confused as to what he was doing, why had he picked up the key? Slowly, he edged toward her, positioning the key in front of where he keyhole was underneath her dress. Mr. Rutherford cleared his throat awkwardly, glancing up at her. “Miss Dahlia, your heart, please.” She swallowed at the tone of his voice, how kind it was. Her eyes looked down at her key with the utmost hesitation, not trusting it to enter her heart.
“Mr. Rutherford, I cannot let that into my heart. I am almost certain that it will hurt me.” She answered tentatively, first looking at the key in his hand then at Mr. Rutherford himself.
“Then, I will make sure that I do not hurt you.” He said simply and before she could stop him, Mr. Rutherford pulled down her dress and pushed the key into her keyhole. She gasped, feeling the key cut her heart.
“Stop! Stop!” She screamed, sobbing, as he twisted the key, trying to unlock her heart. She felt another slice into the muscle and nearly fainted with the overwhelming pain. “Stop, Mr. Rutherford!”
Gasping, clutching her chest, Dahlia sat bolt-upright. Her breathing was labored and her whole body was drenched in a cold sweat, her hair sticking to sides of her face. Frantically, she plunged her hand underneath her nightgown, reassuring herself that her heart was not damaged. Dahlia sighed, collapsing back onto her pillow as she felt the familiar pounding against her skin. Too scared was she now to fall asleep, so she contented herself with staring into the darkness.
The darkness, in turn, staring right back.