Catherine traced the cherubic features of the doll’s face, remembering the Christmas Eve eight years prior when her father had given it to her. She’d been delighted; she’d crawled into his lap and covered his face with kisses. Her mother had, as usual, admonished her for not acting like a young lady, but Catherine hadn’t cared. The doll represented just how much her father loved her, and that was the greatest gift of all.
She harshly rubbed her thumb against the glassy cerulean eye, ripping away its fragile black lashes. It stared lifelessly at her, through her. It mimicked her father’s same lifeless expression just before he pulled the trigger.
She jumped, imagining the loud shot resonating throughout her mind repeatedly as it had since the moment it happened. She heard the shot again, jolting her entire body, only this time it wasn’t the gun: it was the crash of the porcelain as it shattered against the corner of the bookshelf.
Most of the doll’s face was in pieces on the floor. When Catherine examined what remained, all she saw was the jagged edge of its forehead tangled in synthetic brown hair. Staring into faceless abyss, she pictured what remained of her father’s face after the bullet had torn its way through.
Another familiar wave of nausea roiled through her stomach. She closed her eyes, willing away the scene that replayed over and over in her mind, but it wouldn’t go away. There went the shot, again and again and again.
She didn’t realize she was bleeding until she heard Suzon’s weak gasp from the doorway. She opened her eyes and watched in morbid fascination as the porcelain shard dug deeper into her palm. She couldn’t feel the pain of the wound but she watched curiously as a streak of scarlet rolled down her hand and onto her dirty blue pajama pants. She hadn’t bothered to change in three days. The blood stain joined a blotch of beef broth that had sloshed over her bowl when she last ate two days before.
“What are you doing!” Suzon hissed, tossing the broken doll away. She cradled Catherine’s hand and kissed the bloody cut, using her crisp green sleeve to wipe away the life that leaked out of her.
Catherine shrugged. She wanted to watch the blood but didn’t have the energy to pull her hand back from her sister.
“You have to be careful,” Suzon warned, scooting close to the younger woman before wrapping her arms around her while maintaining pressure on the cut. “They won’t let you come home if you act like this.”
Catherine swallowed. “When are they coming?”
“In a few hours. Chanel told me the doctor is taking us both.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“I don’t either.”
An uncomfortable silence stretched between them. After several minutes, Catherine began to feel the dull pressure of the cut in the flesh of her palm. She curled her fingers over the wound and cradled her arm against her chest. “Why can’t I stay here?”
“What about you?”
“I’m…” Suzon sighed, nestling her nose into her sister’s hair. “I don’t know.”
“You’re having his baby.”
Catherine imagined a miniaturized version of her doll, incubating inside her sister’s stomach. She swallowed back the bile that threatened to heave up her throat and violently shrugged her shoulders, forcing Suzon to pull back. “How can you touch me after what you did?”
“What I—Catherine, what exactly do you think I did?”
“You fucked him, didn’t you? My father! You were just another one of his whores.”
Suzon’s eyes glazed over with unshed tears. “I didn’t have much say in the matter.”
“He raped you?”
“Maybe. Yes. No. I…I don’t know anymore.” She licked her lips, ignoring a tear that rolled down her cheek. “That why I’m leaving too.”
Catherine eyed up the woman she knew to be her sister with furious contempt. “You’re going to keep it, aren’t you?”
Suzon protectively covered her stomach. “I want to.”
“Why? If what he did was so horrible, why are you keeping it?”
“I can’t kill it, Catherine. It—he or she—is my responsibility. This baby deserves what I never had.”
“Ha!” Catherine scowled.
“You were always his favorite. He never did to you what he did to me. He treated you like a child…a perfect and silly little child that he loved the right way. But me…and Louise…and who knows how many other girls…he treated like whores. I didn’t know he wasn’t my father but…this baby deserves to be loved.”
Catherine shifted onto her knees, leaning towards Suzon like a venomous snake ready to strike. “You can’t keep him all to yourself! You’re selfish!”
“He’s gone, little one. Gone forever. I’m not keeping him. No one is…not anymore.”
“Yes you are! That little brat is all that’s left of him and you’re keeping it to yourself!”
“Catherine, you don’t know what you’re saying.”
The young girl’s head pounded relentlessly. There was a part, a very small part, of herself that recoiled against the brutal words that she spoke, but the rest of her didn’t care. She wanted Suzon to hurt the way she hurt. “You don’t deserve to have his love growing inside you like that!” she screamed, shoving her sister’s shoulders.
“Love? You think this is love?” Suzon shoved back, placing enough distance between them so that she could strike her hand across Catherine’s face.
The sting of Suzon’s slap caused them both to pause, each gasping for breath. The wildness that coursed through Catherine’s body began to quiet and she collapsed into Suzon’s lap, hysterical with tears. She wound her arms around her sister’s torso, pressing her wet face into the ever-so-slight bulge of her stomach, and cried for everything she’d lost.
Suzon’s cries were quieter, more subdued. She petted her sister’s hair and rubbed her back. “The doctor will be here soon and he’ll make it all better.”
Catherine didn’t have the heart to argue. She didn’t believe her. She didn’t believe that going away to some sanitarium would mend the broken pieces of her soul, but she knew she didn’t have a choice.
As the sisters cried, their thoughts settled on one shared fact: Marcel’s suicide had broken them all.
Augustine’s breath fogged the window as she pressed her forehead against the glass. The shock of the coldness against her flesh quelled the tears that she’d been holding back for days. She felt trapped in this large house and as a deer scouted the far edges of the property, Augustine imagined making a run for it. She knew she couldn’t; if she so much as stepped foot outside, her mother would lose her mind.
Behind her, Augustine could hear the sherry bottle being emptied of its contents and the disappointed huff of her mother as she realized she’d finished it already. The sound of the bottle being set down on the table frayed Augustine’s already shredded nerves and she spun on her heel, glowering at her mother.
“I don’t know why you even bother using a glass!” she hissed, taking up the empty bottle. “Why dirty a perfectly good cup?”
Mamy had the tenacity to look surprised. “Augustine! What’s gotten into you?”
“You!” The fiery-haired woman stamped her foot on the carpet, tightening her fingers on the bottle. “You and your drinking and your bonds and your legs! How much of your life has been a lie?”
Mamy blanched. “You need to calm down before you work yourself into—“
“I’m fine! I’m not going to make myself sick. You are!”
“Why are you being so cruel to your poor mother?”
“You’re not poor. You’ve just spent so long trying to convince us that you are that you’ve actually started to believe it yourself. You took my life so you wouldn’t have to live your own.”
The older woman’s lip trembled. “You don’t know what you’re saying. You’re grieving. We all are. We’re all saying things we don’t mean.”
“You really believe that, don’t you? Is it really as simple as that? We can justify acting like fools and harlots because Marcel is dead?” Augustine huffed and considered smashing the bottle over her mother’s head as her sister had. She didn’t have the gall of her sister; no amount of dressing up in old gowns would change that. She crossed the room and dumped the bottle into the waste bin.
Augustine took a deep breath and turned to face her mother. “I mean it. I’m leaving. I’m going away and I’m not coming back.”
“You can’t leave. You’re too unwell.”
“It’s time I take care of myself.”
Mamy gave a rueful laugh. “You don’t know the first thing about living independently. All your life you’ve depended on others to take care of you. You need me as much as I need you.”
Augustine frowned. “What constitutes need for me is not the same as it is for you.”
Mamy clucked her tongue. “You’ve threatened to kill yourself more than once. What kind of mother would I be to let you go off on your own?”
“What kind of mother would you be to make me stay?”
The old woman sighed and traced her finger around the rim of the empty glass. “You’re lucky you’re not going with the girls. Maybe you’d be better off if you did.”
Augustine gasped and balled her hands into fists at her sides. “Have me committed? Wanting to live my life the way I want to live it makes me a nut?”
“You’re unstable. You’ve got all of these wild ideas now, so suddenly, after Marcel’s death. You can’t manage alone any more than I can.”
Augustine stomped across the room and sat in a vacant chair, looking down at her hands. When had she aged so? When had she lost her right to live her own life? Had it ever been her own? She leaned back, gripping the armrests. She looked away from her mother as she tried to contain her erratic, heavy breathing, fearing she might have an attack. She knew she could, and probably should, take her medication, but Augustine didn’t want to take a pill. She wouldn’t find her life in a pill bottle, just as her mother wouldn’t in a sherry bottle.
Her green eyes scanned the room and finally settled upon the ornamental bird cage behind the piano. The two fake birds were perched upon separate posts, both looking out towards the window with their empty, lifeless eyes. They were those birds, encaged together. One could not survive without the other.
“We need to leave. Live on our own. I can’t stay in this house anymore.”
Mamy was silent for several long minutes. Augustine expected her to protest in favor of staying with her sister and her sister’s wealth. She readied her response, prepared to threaten another overdose, when Mamy finally spoke.
“All right. We’ll go.”
Augustine’s eyebrows jerked and she swallowed her angry threats. It would be good for her to get away from this house, away from the ghosts, but Augustine knew she was simply exchanging one cage for another. There was no escape.
Chanel rubbed her cloth over the kitchen table once more, taking comfort in the mechanical, habitual movement. The table was clean; no one had eaten at it in days but the familiar activity steadied her rampant nerves. With a resigned sigh she sat down, leaning her elbows against the gleaming surface and willing herself not to cry. She couldn’t accept that she was leaving. She couldn’t accept that Marcel was dead and the girls were gone.
Chanel had done the best she could with them; she’d loved them as if they were her own. She’d given them the best parts of herself, even when there was very little to give. Now…
Chanel folded her hands and sighed, wondering what had gone so wrong. Had it been some failure on her part? Had she not been attentive enough? Had she been too attentive? As she thought of the institution that awaited them, her heart broke all over again.
The kitchen door swung open and Chanel gasped, her hand pressing against her chest. If Louise was surprised to find Chanel in the kitchen, she didn’t show it. She gave the housekeeper a cold once-over before putting the kettle on.
“You’re still here?” Louise asked coolly, leaning back against the counter. “I thought you left this morning.”
Chanel shrugged. “I decided to wait until the girls…left.”
“That was an hour ago.”
“I know. I’m surprised you’re still here. I thought you’d be long gone by now.”
“Madame didn’t ask me to leave, so I stayed.”
“She’ll be here only another week or two. What will you do then?”
“I don’t know. Go to Paris maybe.” Louise studied her closely. “You’ve been crying.”
Chanel didn’t try to deny it. She knew that if she did, she’d only set herself off again. “I raised those girls. It’s not easy for me to leave them.”
“No one said you had to leave.”
“After the way I was treated? After all the things that were said? I can’t stay.”
Louise shrugged and poured herself a cup of tea. After a brief hesitation, she poured another one for Chanel. “Maybe it’s all for the best.”
“You dare say that after all that’s happened?” Chanel stared at her steaming cup of tea. “You obviously don’t care about any of us.”
“Just because I’m not weeping into hand towels doesn’t mean I don’t care. I can’t change what happened. It’s not my place to try.” Louise sipped from her cup. “You never liked me. None of you did.”
Louise grunted indignantly. “It wasn’t me that he liked. He liked my body. He liked what I represented.”
“And what’s that?”
“I was an object…a thing he could take his frustrations out on. I was a stand-in for his wife. I was the substitute, the thing he used when he wanted Suzon and couldn’t have her.”
“Poor Louise.” Chanel rolled her eyes. “Excuse me if I don’t have much pity to spare.”
“I’m not asking for your pity. It’s a pity I wasn’t enough for him. I couldn’t replace who he wanted.” Her voice became quiet. “I’m very sorry for Suzon. He wasn’t a well man. She didn’t deserve what he did.”
“If you knew this about him, why didn’t you do anything?” Chanel held up a hand. “Let me guess: it wasn’t your place.”
“It wasn’t, but that’s not why. I thought I was enough for him. He kept me for five years…I thought I was enough.”
Chanel sighed. “Those poor girls.” She licked her lips and finally looked up at the maid, whose face spoke the burden of all those years of playing the role of Marcel’s toy. “I’m sorry for you too, Louise,” she said sincerely.
The blonde forced a smile on her face and set her cup in the sink. “Don’t be sorry for me. It’s over now.”
The housekeeper and the maid stared at each other, both knowing that Louise’s words were a lie. It wasn’t over. The worst of it was just beginning.
Gaby’s thumb flicked across the lighter, her heartbeat quickening as the little flame set her cigarette alight. She took a deep drag, closing her eyes as she filled her lungs. She held it until her need for breath forced her to exhale.
She told herself that when she moved, she’d quit smoking. She wasn’t sure if she’d stick to her resolution, but until then she decided to enjoy each cigarette as if it were her last.
She looked around the empty, quiet house. It felt as though she were in some stranger’s home, looking upon covered furniture and empty bookshelves with a detached eye. It seemed not at all familiar, because Catherine should have been sitting nearby in her pajamas with a book, Mamy should have been tending to her needlework, Augustine should have been playing some forlorn love song on the piano, Chanel should have been starting a fire in the fireplace, and Louise should have been preparing a tray of coffee for Marcel. Marcel would have been working in his room. Suzon would be back at school.
They had all gone.
Gaby savored her cigarette, focusing on the ashes that fell into the little crystal tray that she held in her hand. Even though the house had been sold she couldn’t stand the thought of dirtying the expensive carpet that she had once carefully selected when she decorated the home as a newlywed. She couldn’t stand the thought of leaving it all, but she knew it was time. She’d been prepared to leave her life behind for Jacques, to walk away from her husband and children and the rest of her family. But, as usual, they’d all left before she had the chance.
She knew that it had been necessary for the girls to leave; she’d done what she felt was best for them. She’d never known how to be a proper mother; she loved them ardently, but it had been Chanel who had raised them. She loved them so much that she ached inside, knowing that they now needed her more than ever. But what could she give them? She had spoiled Catherine, giving in to her whimsical fantasies and turning a jealous eye on the attachment that had grown between father and daughter. And Suzon…her first-born, her beloved link to the man she had once so desperately loved, had been failed in the worst possible way. Marcel had been a monster and she had been oblivious to it.
The ache in her chest gripped her hard and she closed her eyes, hoping that by being away from her that they would receive the care and attention they deserved. It would be better for them all.
Gaby wondered if perhaps it was she and not Marcel who had driven everyone away. Mamy and Augustine had left for Lyon, citing a need for a change in climate and scenery. Had she driven them off? Louise had left for Paris and Chanel for Dijon. Perhaps they too had needed to get away from her. The overwhelming feeling of abandonment was, she realized, self-imposed.
She told herself that it would be better this way, that perhaps now they could all move forward in their lives instead of remaining dormant in a house haunted by broken hearts and horrible deeds.
Moving to the country to live in a small cottage nearby the sanitarium was not what Gaby had dreamt of when she imagined starting her life anew, but she knew she had no other choice. Her girls needed her and her selfish dreams would have to wait until the girls were better. There was the baby to think about too.
As she stamped out the butt of the cigarette, her heavy heart drooped a little as she realized that Gaby the Woman would play second fiddle to Gaby the Mother. She wondered if she’d ever be given the opportunity to live for herself.
She supposed it didn’t matter anymore.
There was a knock at the door and Gaby jumped, surprised to find herself with unwelcome company. She considered not answering but knew that her car in the driveway would tip off her visitor that she was home. With a disappointed sigh, Gaby turned to answer the door and frowned to see that her guest had already entered.
Pierrette grinned as she closed the door behind herself, brushing the snow from her hair. “I see you haven’t left yet.”
Gaby raised an eyebrow as she gave the other woman a once-over. “Were you hoping I had? Hoping to scavenge the house?”
Pierrette took off her coat and draped it over a chair, rolling her eyes. “Would you believe me if I told you I came to see you?”
“Just the same…” Pierrette licked her lips. “When I heard from Chanel that you were leaving, I came to see you.”
“Ah,” Gaby said, imagining an intimate scenario in which her former housekeeper and sister-in-law exchanged details about her life. “How nice,” she added curtly.
“Are you jealous? Of Chanel?”
“No. Why would I be jealous?”
Pierrette’s red mouth curved into a wicked grin. “Jealousy is very becoming on you.”
“I’m not in the mood for your games.”
“Who’s playing games? I’m being honest.”
Gaby set down the ashtray. “What do you want?”
“I was worried about you, if you must know.”
“A lot’s happened. It’s a lot for a woman to handle on her own.” Pierrette stepped closer. “I know you prefer to hide behind that perfect mask of yours, but you don’t have to.”
“I don’t need your help.” Gaby turned her back and lit another cigarette, hoping the nicotine would steady her nerves. Her fingers trembled as she brought the cigarette to her lips.
“I lost my brother, in case you’d forgotten. I know what you’re going through.”
“You don’t know anything!” Gaby spat, glaring at the brunette. She stared incredulously and tried to refrain from striking her. “My husband, your brother, was not a saint. He didn’t martyr himself. He neglected me, cheated on me, raped my daughter…” Her words caught in her throat, her mouth suddenly dry. “I’m sorry he didn’t kill himself sooner.”
Pierrette’s lips tightened. “That’s a cruel thing to say about a man who gave you everything you have.”
“I don’t care about any of it. The fur and the jewels and the money…I’d get rid of it all if it meant keeping my children from the harm he inflicted.”
Gaby narrowed her eyes. “I don’t owe you an explanation. Who are you to judge me?”
Pierrette raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know; who are you to judge me?”
Gaby stared for a long moment at her beautiful sister-in-law. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” She flicked her thumb against the cigarette and watched the ashes lazily scatter onto the floor. “I’d rather not fight with you.”
“Fighting is the last thing on my mind.”
There was something in Pierrette’s tone that quickened Gaby’s pulse, something effortlessly erotic. She instantly remembered the kiss they shared and the way Pierrette’s body felt on top of her, all heat and desire. Her cheeks flushed. “I don’t want that either.”
Pierrette gave an innocent grin as she plucked Gaby’s cigarette from her fingers and took a drag. “Whatever do you mean?”
Gaby’s eyes focused on Pierrette’s lips. “You know what.”
“I’m utterly clueless.”
Gaby sighed, taking back her cigarette. Pierrette’s deep rose lipstick left an imprint and as she brought it to her mouth, she shuddered. “No funny business.”
Pierrette took a step closer, tracing her fingertip along the line of Gaby’s jaw. “I’ve never been more serious.”
The blonde cleared her throat, her face burning hotter. She considered the other woman. “At any rate, I’m leaving.”
“You never know. I get around.”
“Of that I’m well aware.”
Pierrette took away the cigarette once more, this time blotting out the embers carefully in the ashtray. She cupped her hand over Gaby’s cheek, her thumb brushing gently across her lower lip. “I like you, Gaby. I’m not ready to say goodbye.”
Gaby swallowed, feeling suddenly dizzy. “I’m not ready for this.”
Pierrette nodded and leaned in, brushing her lips softly against Gaby’s. “I’ll give you time.”
Gaby closed her eyes and allowed herself to be swept away by the kiss. She wondered if there would ever be enough time to undo all the damage that had been done. Would time heal her daughters’ wounds? Would time allow Gaby to feel like a whole woman?
As Pierrette kissed her, Gaby felt for the first time like something good may have come out of Marcel’s death. It didn’t matter that Pierrette was a woman, or that she had a colorful past, or that she was the sister of the man she had married—what mattered was that she had stayed. In the aftermath of tragedy, Gaby was not alone.