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that black forest and the fire in earnest

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The summer of her thirty-seventh year is hot and horrible.

Kitty’s hand is dry and bone-light on Florence’s cheek. Knowing -- with a surety, with a certainty -- that death is not the final ending means nothing when faced with a tremory smile and a voice that sputters and stalls. Florence kneels beside her mother’s bed, unaware of time not measured by the long pauses between breaths, unaware of space outside the stuffy little room, Kitty bundled to her chin and still shivering.

The silence stretches between them, Florence never having been skilled at the superficial parts of language. After all, it all won’t be all right. Florence drops her head -- only for a moment -- and considers the infection she follows from home to home, whispering down corridors, huddling under beds. She carries it with her, perhaps, the stuff commingling with the particles of air. Kitty’s weak fingers tighten, and Florence jerks upright, hearing the sputter, the stall.

The world exhales all at once, and Kitty’s arm drops across Florence’s -- the sleeve of her plum gown garish against the bleached linens.

She’s dry-eyed and raw and alone, again.

Florence struggles to stand, but her legs have gone numb. There’s nothing below the knee but fleshy jelly, useless bone. She drops, heavy, the impact of her hip against the wood sparking bright red behind her eyes. Florence gasps, shouts, wails. Her eyes refuse to fill.

--

She’s not had much success, as it were, since returning from Home. After a book about Tom and Maud and the house -- the school -- Florence’s investigations fall more and more in the mundane. A shame, she considered, and a disappointment. Something she tried not to think about, but that permeated her to the bone.

--

It would be kind, Florence thinks, if her mind would allow her to be quiet and still in the following weeks, while the sun bakes the ground to a crisp. (Makes for easy digging, perhaps.) It would be kind if she could stand at her mother’s grave without sweat and tears blurring her vision. It would be kind if she could remember nothing, nothing but a sweet sleep.

Florence’s mind is not kind, and neither is the weather.

The priest recites the sermon, the rhythm and lull of it causing Florence to sway, slightly, in the heat. (Kitty gasps, grasps at Florence’s chin in the entryway. Look at you, she coos, how you’ve changed. Florence smiles, but admits she cannot see it, eyes she knows belong to her catching hers in the looking glass. Perhaps (she touches a finger to her lips) she has only forgotten how she used to be. But then, she still carries a metal weight in her pocket, still taps her cigarette three times before setting the end aflame. Perhaps she is changed. Perhaps she is only now awakening from a very long sleep.

You must tell us, Kitty says, eyes closing, opening bright, everything that’s happened. It seems, somehow, (Florence learns, sighing into her favorite chair, leaning to tug at the laces of one boot and then the other) that news of her doings at the boarding school have traveled before her. She can feel it, in fact, a strange buzzing in the farthest corner of her skull.) Florence blinks, and Kitty descends. The men grunt and growl, and then it is over.

Over but for the rush of chill that takes Florence all at once, tackling her to the ground at once, snapping her breath away.

Snapping her in two.

--

Heavy. Florence can feel the weight of her, the pull of the earth. She’d like to keep sinking, she thinks. Her rib cage lifts to breathe, and some of the rocks fall away. Florence blinks her eyes open -- the air is hazy-hot, thick. No wonder she can’t rise.

She turns her head, suddenly aware of a thousand aching pieces, parts, joints, whispering or howling for attention. Hands, wrapping and re-wrapping a kind of gauze. Female hands, female arms, and there. A face. The girl is young with a round face that seems at once utterly foreign and intensely familiar. It is her eyes Florence knows -- absurd, since she’s certain the girl at her side is stranger, but true.

“What has happened?” Florence manages, each word tasting like dust.

“Your leg, Miss. There was an accident at the funeral. You fell. There was a fever, I think, while you slept. The widower, your father, he asked me to come. To tend you.”

“And you are?”

“Euphemia,” she answers, with a little dip, nodding her head. Her hair is scooped back under a neatly-tied cloth, but some has wiggled free in the heat. It is bright yellow, like a field of wheat, moving listlessly in the dry air.

“Euphie--” Florence manages, imagining that field. Imagining it set aflame. She sleeps once more.

--

The next day is better: Euphemia’s cool hand at Florence’s neck helping her sit, spooning soup down Florence’s parched throat. They are mostly quiet together, once all the details have been filled in.

The next day is better, still: Florence sits at the edge of her bed, nightclothes damp with sweat hanging across her shoulders. Two feet on the floor flex slowly, cautiously, ready to be tested with a taste of heavier weight. Florence leans forward, pressing, until she gasps -- hand in a fist rising to her mouth -- and retreats. “That bad, then,” she says, when she has her breath again.

And so they continue, each day pushing a little further through the heat.

--

Euphemia leans close, a solid-metal lighter in her hand, flicked open. The flame blinks. Florence lifts her eyes gratefully, sucking on the end of her cigarette before watching Euphie do the same. “The letters have been piling up, you know,” her nursemaid says, when they’ve both settled again into their chairs in the salon.

“They’ll make good kindling, won’t they.” Florence takes a long drag, absently flexing and relaxing her ankles, wincing when she moves too far. “Why do you bring it up?”

Euphie bites her pretty little lip. “You’ll forgive me, won’t you, if I’ve been reading them?” Her fingers work over the lighter in her pocket, Florence can see the fabric move and remembers the comfort of that act.

She laughs, then. “Someone should!” Florence barks. “Read them, I mean.”

“And I’ve come across one that I think you should read, as well, Florence. It’s clear that most of these are simply cases of misplaced items, or tomfoolery, but this one, this one is, I think, quite real.” Euphemia waves her hand around now, dripping ash on the carpets between them. She flushes, tapping her cigarette in the tray, then tucks it in the corner of her mouth to dig back into her pocket for the letter.

Florence remembers being this excited. She isn’t now -- not quite -- but the memory of the feeling is enough to speed her heart. “Read it, then, won’t you?” She exhales long, watching the way Euphemia flushes and excitedly abandons the nub of her cigarette for good.

“‘Miss Cathcart,’ it begins, and the hand is rather boyish. Unschooled. ‘I write to you in a panic as the police here have given us no other answer. They tell us an accident has occurred -- an accident leaving dear Mister Darby burned and dead, excepting his left foot. But Miss Cathcart I’ll have you know this isn’t the first accident of the sort has happened here. Combustion, they say, might happen if a spark drops, a body feeding a flame upwards and out.’ I’m sure you know the science far better than he manages to explain.” Self-consciously, Euphemia checks the ashtray, stubbing her cigarette out a bit more completely. “Anyways, ‘Miss Cathcart, I would implore you to come to our home and see for yourself. Needing to hear from you,’ and it is signed, ah, Jeremiah Waters.” Carefully, Euphemia re-folds the document and tucks it away. Her gaze is slow in returning to Florence, nervous perhaps, about this suggestion.

Another long inhale, exhale, as Florence considers the blood surging through her veins. How it longs to escape from this house, how it longs to see truth again. “You’ll be by my side, of course?”

The decision is worth it to see Euphemia’s face cracked wide with a smile.

--

The Darby home is a magnificent one. Not quite so magnificent as the school, or many of the homes Florence has visited on her travels, but old and tall, and reaching -- in that twisted way that stone monuments have -- for something higher than the builders could reach themselves. Jeremiah Waters, having been told to expect them, greets them at the top of the drive, his smile wavering slightly as he holds the door of the car open for Florence and her cane emerges first. He is a young man, cleanshaven but for a day or so’s growth across his cheeks. Tow-headed, and dressed smartly, his brown coat buttoned about his waist, showing his slim form.

Euphemia struggles with the equipment Florence can no longer carry on her own, finally lifting an eyebrow to their host who coughs sternly and moves to carry one case in each hand.

“Awfully nice of you to make the trip, Miss Cathcart,” Jeremiah mumbles, nudging the car door closed behind Florence. “We’ve had a rough patch, I’m afraid, since Mister Darby’s passing.”

“And you are...?” Florence tries not to wince as she tests out the gravel drive under her feet.

“Jeremiah Waters, naturally!” he replies, then, recognizing her meaning, the boy flushes and bows his head. “I’m son to the butler. I’ve run of the grounds.” He nods, lifting his chin towards the great house. “You’ll follow me inside, then? I’ll show you around?”

“Does the family know of our visit -- and the purpose of it?” Euphemia asks -- a question Florence might have come to herself if she weren’t so preoccupied, suddenly, with the play of light and shadow against the front door. She feels a shiver down her spine having nothing to do with her unsteady gait. She’s certain Jeremiah answers with some sort of assuaging reassurance, but she’s off, limping towards the door on her own, forgetting almost instantly the others in her party.

There is... an electricity to the house. When Florence closes her eyes and inhales, her hair stands on end, her scalp sending thousands of tiny pin pricks down her back and arms.

The science is impossible to ignore, but so is this.

--

Indoors (and unsure how she gets there), Florence practically vibrates with the thing. The thing she has no name for, no scientific proof. Jeremiah and Euphemia walk behind, apparently unburdened by the sizzle in the air.

“You’ll show us where you found the body?”

“Yes, yes. What was left of it, in any case.” Jeremiah lugs his cargo through a long, musty hallway, turns a corner and sets them down in a doorway. “It was in here, in the study.”

The house is impossibly quiet, enough so that Florence jumps out of her skin at Euphie’s gentle touch at her elbow. “All right?” Euphemia asks, setting down her own baggage, and looking nervously into Florence’s eyes. It is then that Florence realizes she is shaking. Probably has been for some long minutes.

“We’ll set up here.”

The process goes smoothly, Euphemia remembering most steps from their practice at home, Florence offering directions and guidance from a chair in front of an unlit fireplace. She can feel the warmth of it, a strange residual glow that makes her legs feel slightly burnt.

Her mechanisms are still and lifeless, despite the charges running all through Florence’s body, making her shiver, her teeth chatter.

“There,” announces Euphie, rising and brushing the dust from her knees, “and what now?”

“Now--”

It strikes her -- harder and more fierce than anything she experienced with Tom. It strikes to the gut, knocking her breathless, cutting her sight.

Voices pick up, shouting, fading into long murmurs. Here, in the darkness, Florence can see the shape of a man, silhouetted against the thicker darkness beyond. Long fingers flick open a lighter, and a flame starts, slow, then strong and hot. (He smiles, tucking his long fingers under her chin and lifting, gently. I’ll come back for you, Flo. No enemy’s strong enough to keep me away. Those fingers, dive once through her hair, tugging on a small knot, breaking free. He touches her neck, feels the driving pulse of her. I’ll come back.) Florence blinks, suddenly blinded. A sharp cry of pain rings out, long moments before Florence realizes it must have come from her.

“Hush, now,” Euphemia says, her hand pressed lightly to the side of Florence’s neck. “You’re all right.”

Jeremiah must still be with them, his babbling kicking up and droning on like a low buzz in the back of Florence’s mind. Her body aches. “The instruments--” she whispers, looking as she never quite has at Euphemia, at the tuck of her hair behind her ear, at the tight, cinched waist of her trousers. The girl doesn’t move her hand.

Euphemia nods, and finally the corners of her mouth begin to lift.