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A Good Family
Her breathing was fast and shallow and echoed around her, making it impossible to tell where she ended and the space began. Scrabbling at the damp, dripping stone, she searched blindly for a door handle, a light switch, anything. She bit her lip to keep from screaming- she didn’t know who else was down here. Or what else. Feet numb, she shuffled forward, tripping on things she didn’t want to think about. She had to get out. A hot tear coursed down her face.
Her sensible Wellies (dark grey felt, rubber lining) squelched in the muddy puddles lining the road. Despite her efforts, she could never miss all of them. Puddle avoidance was a skill that she was still honing. Shifting her ratty but spotless backpack , she pulled out a few clips and pinned back the flaming tendrils that persistently found their way into her mouth. Despite having lopped off the majority of her hair, it still managed to get in her way. But her silly hair should have known-it was a bad idea to get in Melody Donahugh’s way. Her hair would learn. Just like the rest of her sleepy Scottish town.
Just as soon as she worked up enough courage to tell them.
The castle loomed around the corner, just visible through the dripping trees- “The Most Haunted Castle in Britain”. She snorted. The thought still made her shake her head. Melody had been working in the little tea shop for a year now, and she had heard no eerie whispers, seen no headless specters, and the only cold drafts she had felt had been because the castle was old. Cold drafts are just what Scottish castles do. They draft. Coldly.
But despite this, the ladies in the tea shop still told animated stories about a vengeful bride, a conniving husband, and other historical shenanigans to the tourists when they asked about “encounters”. Would Melody stoop that low? If it got her a bonus, sure- it takes a lot of money to pay your way through university, and Cambridge was not going to come quickly at £4.60 an hour. But so far, they hadn’t bribed her. So he would continue to pour tea and smile sweetly and bide her time until she could leave and get the education no one in her town seemed interested in.
The castle was in full view now, staring at her in a way that made her consistently uncomfortable. It’s walls, when dry, were an almost pink stone that had been chipped and worn down by the winds and rain and general sullenness of the Scottish climate. It sat, dignified, watchful, on a hill that overlooked the surrounding woods and gardens. If you climbed its tower- a hulking object that had once housed the hidden torture room and artillery- you could just make out the slate roof tiles of her village. But she only got the go up there on breaks, which were few and far between. And she had a peculiar feeling come over her when she moseyed around the castle like that. Just sometimes.
A curt honk sent her flailing into a puddle. How polite. As she spun to chastise the mystery driver, she was instead met with a healthy dose of muddy water, thoroughly soaking her from mid-thigh down. Shivers coursed up from her toes and she bit back a squeal as the classic white Rolls-Royce sped past her and up to the gaping entrance and imposing wooden doors. A wedding. Why did everyone have that car? A veiled bride stomped out, wielding a delicate bouquet and flinging a gloved hand at a cowering group of chartreuse girls. Sighing, Melody turned to take the long way to the kitchen. The castle was still open to the public- it was just the event room and grand stone staircase that would be closed off. Her boots were sloshy, she was shivering, and it was reasonable to assume that at least three of the chartreuse girls would make their way to the kitchen for tea and gingerbread and a good long sob before the day was over. Probably five, by the looks of the bride. She was on the far end of the Wedding Nerves Spectrum. Melody tromped past the bracken on the west end, noting that the walls had turned a glistening grey-brown - the color of her eyes. With a wry grin, she noted that it was the only thing she and her castle had in common. That, and the fact that the Donahugh clan had owned the castle for a time, back in the day of Inness Donahugh and the others, as her mother frequently insisted.
“Colin! I’m home!” She stepped into the toasty tea shop kitchen through the side door, which shook the floral blue window curtains. A plump, shiny man turned from his steaming mystery pot to grin at her as he wiped his hands on spotless white attire. Even though the Blake family had owned the castle since Inness Donahugh went missing in 1910, he still worked in the kitchen. An excellent boss.
“About time, my lass!” His familiar smile was warmer than the room. “I thought I was going to have to serve those women. You know I don’t do well with strangers. Too shy.”
“Oh, Colin, I could never do that to you. Or the ladies. They would be simply slain by your charm- even if you were too shy to say a word!” Chuckling, he pulled her into a side hug and then pushed her gently towards the rack of aprons behind the messy island.
“I’m too good a soul to put them through such a torture. Now go ask what they want!” But as she smoothed down the crisp white fabric, a chartreuse woman burst into the kitchen through the tea shop entrance, frantically patting her helmet-like chignon.
“A glass of champagne, a warm serviette, and a shot of whiskey, faster than you can manage.” She panted, looking wildly about her until her eyes rested on Melody. Brightening, she clapped her hands. “Excellent! Waitress, I need all of those on a tray brought up to the ladies’ room on the second floor right now. As in two minutes ago. Alright?” She snatched a fresh biscuit from the island, threw a wave of thanks over her shoulder, and tottered out before Melody could respond.
“Well,” a bemused Colin said after a pause, “Let’s get the lovely bride some alcohol then, shall we?”
Glasses clinked in the breathy mist as she stepped gingerly around shallow puddles. An organ echoed faintly from behind paned glass on the other end of the castle- despite the inconvenience, she had to walk around the outside, since it would be “unprofessional to bump into a tourist with a shot of whiskey and soaking Wellies”. Not a single tourist was in sight. She had crossed around the side closest to the forest, where the birds normally made quite a clatter. But today, they were silent. Blowing a scarlet lock out of her mouth, she circled the high tower.
The bride was in front of her, about 30 feet ahead, and staring. The diva would unleash hell, Melody was sure.
“I’m terribly sorry for the delay, ma’am! I was hurrying!” She ducked her head, preparing for the (hopefully) verbal onslaught. But nothing came. Looking up through her crimson lashes, she saw the bride cock her head. Odd. “Ma’am, forgive me, but isn’t your wedding starting soon? Do you want these now?” She offered up her tray to the woman, but the lady said nothing. She turned, and briskly started off in the other direction. With a huff, Melody followed. These women were so unpredictable. She was never going to get married. Starting after the bride, she noted with envy that her auburn hair was a much more sophisticated ginger than her own. It curled delicately down her back almost to her waist, and her dark brown eyes flicked over her shoulder at the girl. Embarrassed, Melody glanced away and almost sent the champagne flying when she tripped over her sloshing boot. Classy. They reached the forbidding wooden doors of the main entrance. The diva stopped, gazing at the intricate curls and twists carved into them. Shifting her tray, she grabbed the handle and heaved it open, since it was clear the woman wasn't going to. But now she was already at the grand stone staircase! Apparently her wedding did matter to her. After power walking over (holding the tray gingerly to keep the drinks from spilling), they marched up. Tiny slit windows cast dim light on the spiral, and the electric lights were off. As they neared the top, she heard the sounds of a lady crying rather hysterically. “Excuse me, ma'am, but I should go check on her. It might be one of your bridesmaids.” Melody hinted as heavily as was appropriate that she didn't want to do it. But the bride didn't even look at her. So Melody trudged over to find which poor soul she was going to have to comfort. She needed a bonus for this- she was saving the wedding. Rounding the corner, she saw a huddle of chartreuse girls bent around someone, cooing and patting. The clacky one from before looked up.
“About time! I could have brewed my own liquor before you got here.” She snatched the tray and shooed the other girls out of the way. She knelt down in front of the weeping woman. “Sweetheart, here. Whiskey.” Looking up through streaming eyes, a brunette in a white dress and long gloves snatched the glass and downed it. Tingles started slowly from the base of Melody's feet, working their way up faster and faster until her entire body was frigid and trembling. That was not the bride.
That was not the bride.
She turned and ran.
Gasping, she hurtled up the staircase, eyes wide and wild. Not there. Up to the next level, then. The drawing room was grand, with paintings and tapestries and suits of armor, but she payed no attention to it. All she cared about was the flash of white that went through the doorway to the tower. “Hey!” she called, trying to be assertive. It came out as a squeak. Oh, that would definitely stop her. Fine. Carefully measured steps brought her to the narrow stone doorway. The spiral staircase was dark. It’s just a tourist, right? It’s just a tourist. The words sounded ridiculous even in her head. It wasn’t. She knew.
She began to climb the staircase.
47 steps left.
She couldn’t hear the woman at all. Then again, she hadn’t made a sound the entire time they had walked together. “Hello? Ma’am?” Nothing, of course.
35 steps left.
She’s probably just a tourist in a white dress. What a coincidence! She’ll be at the top, checking out Melody’s favorite view of the village. They would chat about the different buildings, and she would recommend a place for dinner. A casual misunderstanding.
22 steps left.
A breath on her right. Melody slammed against the cramped wall, hands shaking. It was a breeze. No one could fit next to her on the tiny staircase. A distant chuckle bounced off the wall. A slight whimper escaped from her lips. She was fine. It’s fine. After finding her, she would get back to work, keep working till they closed, do it again tomorrow after school, make enough money to get into university, lead a successful life. She wouldn’t remember today in a few months. An average day. Nothing special.
Her words resounded emptily in her head. She couldn’t fool herself. This was something Unknown.
“Help.” It was right in front of her face. A scream ripped out of her, relieved to finally have a reason, and she pressed herself as close against the wall as she could. Her hand gripped a protruding stone and she squeezed, terrified. The wall opened and it was dark and everything was spinning and she was screaming and a hand brushed her face and then she was gone.
A drop landed on her forehead. She was huddled in a ball. It was the darkest place she had ever been in. Her breath caught in her throat. There had been a hand, a voice, a beautiful woman in a wedding dress. But it didn’t matter now. She needed a way out. Searching for a wall, she found one too close to her face. It was freezing and damp- she jerked her hand back. Unfolding herself, she eased upwards and forced herself to touch the dripping stone. Her hands roamed, looking for anything to help her. There was a door around, surely. Stay calm. But no door could be found- no handles, ridges, light switches. It seemed to be a corridor , and it never ended. Shuffling forward, her feet bumped into soft lumps and light swathes of something, but she kept going- if she stopped, starting again would not be an option. Melody's hands had been shaking so hard that they smacked against the wall, making a sickly splashing noise. She had been inching forward for minutes and years. Nothing. Whatever had happened to her, it wasn't going to happen again. At some point she started to cry, almost longing for the mysterious woman who had led her here. She was going to die. No university. No future. Just darkness.
Melody crumpled to the ground, exhausted and terrified. She recognized that voice.
She almost laughed. The prospect of looking at anything in this blackness was inconceivable.
What the hell. Death was coming anyway. Reaching in her pocket, she found a bobby pin and a piece of gum. With sudden anger at the absurdity of her situation, she threw them as hard as she could. They bounced off a wall and landed with a cushioned sigh.
The voice was all around her, nowhere, as intimate as a family member. She slid her hand into the pocket of her apron. Matches. Matches for lighting the gas stove. Fumbling and quivering, she finally managed to strike one. The light flared on, and the woman was so close their noses almost touched. Auburn tendrils rested on Melody's knees, skin paler than moonlight glowed in the light of her match and in a light of its own. But her eyes captured Melody's- they were brown like the castle walls on a rainy day. Brown like hers. And so full of sorrow and anger that she began to feel the same need for vindication coursing through her veins. It was bubbling, frothing inside her. And then she got angrier- at the bride. Who was she to bring her into this godforsaken darkness? What had Melody done? Nothing! She had tried to do the right thing, do her job correctly. She wouldn't be bossed around by this woman, whatever she was, or anyone else. She was Melody Elizabeth Donahugh! Suddenly, the woman nodded.
“You understand. Bring me back. Make them pay.”
Her match flickered and went out, plunging her back into black.
“Donahugh. Good family.” It sounded like she was smiling. Then the woman was gone. She could feel it. But she understood. Her second match flared. Next to her was a beautiful wedding dress, yellow with age. On it was her gum and bobby pin. She picked it the dress without hesitation, and a bone fell out. A tear dripped down her cheek, and she smiled. Turning, Melody shoved against a protruding wet stone.
The boots were dry now. The wedding was out- raucous laughter echoed up the grand staircase. Apparently the diva had decided to go through with it. She was still counting on five bridesmaids in the tea shop when she returned. The dress was so light in her arms. All of a sudden, she was backing into the familiar kitchen.
“Colin.” She laid the bones on the island.
“Where have you been, lass? I've had to deal with a bunch of women in repulsive dresses and a tourist who thought he was in Ireland. I need help!” He turned, laughing, but stopped abruptly when he saw what used to be a woman on the counter. “Melody.”
“Colin, I remember the story. The story of how we were almost related. The one you tell all the time. How Inness Donahugh and Eiric Blake were to be married and share the castle- how she disappeared on her wedding day and left everything to him.” She was choking back angry tears. “Eiric killed Inness. I know it, you know it. Colin Blake, your family is full of traitors! And you're just as bad!” She slammed her fist on the metal island, and Colin flinched as though she had struck him. His face was white, his lips pressed together. His normally kind eyes were devoid of emotion, and it scared her. But she was beyond caring. Her fury had made her brave, braver than she had ever thought she could be.
“Give me the castle, Colin. It's Inness'. It's mine.”
Their eyes were fixed on each other as though their lives depended on it. And they did.
He stumbled out the door, and the curtains shook from his presence for the last time.
The keys were next to Inness' beautiful, triumphant wedding dress.
“Donahugh. Good family.”