As I prepped my notes for work on Ties of Blood, I noticed that I have a lot of side characters who, for one reason or another, don’t get any “me” time. so, I’ve decided to remedy that in a collection of short stories called…
(You can find Bethina in shades of Gray. This story takes place in 1947.)
Bethina snapped the suitcase closed and gave the familiar bedroom a last look. Though her mother was silent, she could feel her standing in the doorframe behind her. She could imagine the frown on her face and the unshed tears in her eyes.
“Are you sure about this?”
Bethina sighed and turned around to face her. “Yes. Mom, I’m sure. What else am I going to do?” Her mother started to answer, but Bethina hurried on before she could. “It isn’t like I’m moving to the ends of the earth. It’s just a few miles out of town. I can come home and visit you.”
That wasn’t enough to silence her mother’s objections. “And what happens when you get too sick to be a nanny anymore?”
“Would you rather they send me to die in a TB San? Would that be better?” Her mother flinched as if she’d slapped her, and Bethina instantly regretted the words. Regardless, there was truth in them. How much longer could they pretend she wasn’t sick? Eventually there’d be no choice and they’d have to send her away. Blue Ridge was one of the better sanatoriums, but it was over 100 miles away. That might as well be 1,000. This option was better – so very, very much better. If only she could tell her mother all of it, then maybe she’d understand. But, she couldn’t.
“I’m sorry, mother, but I’ve made up my mind. They know about my condition and they still want me to come stay full time. And Alexander is so sweet. You can’t look at him without melting. I don’t want to leave him behind. I want to do something with the time I have left.”
“If you feel that way, then don’t you have a responsibility to that little boy? You’re exposing him to the disease by being there.”
“And I’m exposing you by being here. And I expose everyone in church on Sundays! They know about my condition,” she repeated. “And they have still asked me to stay full time.”
“But those people!” Her mother caught her hands and held them. “Bethy, they’re… they’re not right. They stay isolated in that old plantation and no one ever sees them. They’re-”
“Different,” Bethina finished for her. “There’s nothing wrong with them, mother.” At least nothing I can tell you about.
A horn sounded outside and Bethina thanked whatever saint was the patron of interruptions. “That’s Ernie. He’s taking me up there.” She extracted her hands and hurriedly grabbed her luggage. “I’ll be back in a couple of weeks for a visit.” She brushed a quick kiss across her mom’s cheek and then slid neatly past her. “I love you! See you then!”
Bethina didn’t stop to let her mother finish, and she didn’t look back. Her mind was made up. There was no safer place in the world for her to go than the big brick plantation house with its shadowy corridors, silent rooms, and undead occupants. Occupants that couldn’t catch her disease.
Eddie was a few years older than her. Though they got along well enough, they had nothing to talk about, so the trip was a silent one. She could feel his disapproval, but they weren’t close enough for him to comment. But, when he parked the car just inside the large, iron gates, he met her eyes and cleared his throat noisily. The sign something unpleasant would follow.
She tried to circumvent it. “Thanks, Eddie. I’ll see you later.”
“Will you?” His question forced her to drop the door handle and meet his gaze. “I know it’s not my business, but are you sure you know what you’re doing? Everyone thought you were crazy enough working part time up here, but to move in? They’re creepy, and this place is about as cheerful as a funeral parlor. You sure you want to live here?”
Her eyes narrowed at his too blunt assessment. “You’re right, it’s not your business.” She opened the door and climbed out with a crisp, “thank you for the ride.” She slammed the door with a satisfying sound, and then marched to the house.
The large front door opened before she knocked, and Sandra, one of the maids, moved aside to admit her. The entrance hall was a huge room paneled in wood and hung with old, heavy portraits. Light shone through windows around the front door, but it couldn’t chase away the shadows. Technically, Eddie was right. The house wasn’t very cheerful. The interior had been redecorated, but otherwise it was the same as it had been when it had been built over a hundred years ago. That meant no plumbing, and no electricity.
“You’re staying?” Sandra asked and took a step back. Like the rest of the staff she could still get sick and, though she was never unfriendly, she was distant.
Bethina only nodded and Sandra motioned to the curving staircase. “You might as well go on up. They’re not awake yet.”
Bethina nodded again and climbed the stairs slowly. She made her way down the corridor to what was her new bedroom. Late September sunlight splashed through the windows and brought a cheer to the room that the somber hallways lacked.
She unpacked a little, rested briefly, then walked downstairs to the kitchen where the women were cleaning and preparing what would be their breakfast. Yes, things here were different, including what time their day started.
Both women glanced up at her, but only Sandra acknowledged her. “Have you eaten?”
“Yes, but thank you.” She pulled up a chair at the kitchen table and watched Jane add wood to the old cast iron stove. Finished, the woman straightened and mopped her forehead, then rolled up her sleeves. Her arms were wrapped at random intervals with white gauze bandages. A hazard of working at the plantation house.
As if she felt the scrutiny, Jane turned around and met Bethina’s blue eyes. “I hear you’re going to be here full time?” Bethina nodded and Jane looked mildly surprised. “I can’t imagine your family is happy about that.”
Bethina shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “No. My mother’s pretty upset about it.”
“I would be, too, if I were her.” Jane turned back to a bowl of batter, leaving Bethina wide eyed with surprise.
“But why? You work here.”
Jane stiffened, but didn’t turn back around. “Just because I’m here doesn’t mean I’d want my daughter to be here. I know what they are, after all. I wouldn’t want my child committed to this enslavement.”
“Enslavement?” Bethina echoed. The word seemed absurd and out of place. Something antiquated and distasteful. “How can you call it that?”
“And what would you call it?” Something dark hid under the edges of Jane’s tone. Something angry and challenging. It instantly irritated Bethina.
“How about employment?”
Jane laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound. “You’re young still, and naïve. Employment is something you can leave if you choose. Do you think we have that luxury?” She turned around, her eyes dark fire and a wooden spoon gripped dangerously in her hand like a weapon. “Do you think we can leave if we choose?”
“Of course not! We know what they are. They can’t just let us walk out. Do you know what happened to the last girl who wanted to leave? She disappeared!”
“Maybe that’s because she left?” Bethina suggested impatiently.
“Without packing?” Jane snorted contemptuously. “They got rid of her because that’s what they do. When you get too old, or you want to leave they just dispose of you and hire another young girl who has no prospects for the future. And in the meantime they work you to death scrubbing and dusting while they drink your blood!”
Sandra cleared her throat loudly; a warning that the conversation was headed for dangerous places, but Jane ignored her and went on.
“Maybe you don’t mind being food for those children because you’re staring down your own death, but the rest of us aren’t. I could have done something. I could have gotten married. I could have had children of my own. Normal children that eat and drink and grow up!”
“Jane,” Sandra said softly. “Enough.”
“No, it isn’t! How can you face it, day in and day out and still say it’s enough? How can you stand to stare into that baby’s eyes and say it’s enough?” She shivered. “It’s like they see right through you, to your very soul, but he never says a word. He never even cries! Just lays there like cold, dead weight and stares right through you!”
Bethina watched with wide eyed confusion as Jane’s shudders turned into tears, Sandra seemed to understand, though, and she quickly moved to embrace her. “Shhh. It’s all right, Jane. It’s all right.”
“How can it be all right? My sister’s dead! My own sister! And where was I? Here! I was here and would they let me go to her when she was sick? Would that bitch Jesslynn let me leave?”
Bethina stared uncomfortably at her hands while Jane wailed. She didn’t know how to feel about the woman’s words. Her misery was real, but Bethina couldn’t reconcile it to what she knew of them. Yes, Jesslynn was austere, haughty even, but surely she’d let Jane go to her sick sister? She’d told Bethina that she could go visit her mother when she wanted, so long as she didn’t say the wrong thing. She’d been working there after school for two years now and had never betrayed their secret, so they knew they could trust her. Maybe that was the difference. Maybe she was trustworthy and Jane wasn’t.
Still, she felt she should say something. “I’m sorry to hear about your sister.”
Jane pulled back and glared at her through puffy red eyes. “No, you’re not! You couldn’t care less, just like they couldn’t care less. You’re a pet to them, not a slave like we are. But, just wait until you’re dying and they look the other way and pretend they couldn’t share some of that immortality with you. Then you’ll see how much they think of you. You’re just livestock to them, like the rest of us. We’re good enough to clean their house and give our blood to their children, but we’re not good enough to join them! They let us die while they keep the secret to themselves!”
Bethina stood up too fast and grabbed the edge of the table to keep from falling. Jane had passed annoying and gone straight to making her angry. “It’s too bad your sister died, but you shouldn’t take it out on everyone else by being so nasty.”
Sandra cleared her throat again and glanced at Bethina. “I think maybe you’d better…” she trailed off, but they all knew what she meant.
Bethina nodded crisply and marched out the door. As she left, Sandra’s voice floated to her. “Jane, honey, you have to watch what you say. If she tells the mister and missus who know what will happen to you?”
“Who knows what will happen?” Bethina muttered darkly. “You’ll get fired, that’s for sure! See how you like it, then!”
She intended to go to her room and finish unpacking, but she got tired by the time she reached the entrance hall and had to stop and sit on a carved bench. She coughed into her ever present handkerchief and tried to fight the instinctual alarm when she saw the crimson dots on it. Jane was so worried about the meager amount that Alexander or the baby took from her. Maybe she should try watching her handkerchiefs fill with it for no reason! Then she could talk to her about death!
She looked up at the sound of a delighted voice and saw Alexander. He stood with his back pressed to the far wall, clinging to the shadows. “What are you doing up? It’s not dark yet.”
He squirmed. “I know, but I wanted to see if you were here yet. Father said he didn’t think your mother would really let you come, but Mother said of course you would. I knew she’d be right.” His face broke into a wide, pointy toothed grin.
She pulled herself to her feet and walked to him, stopping in front of him with her hands on her hips. “All right, now you’ve seen. You better get back to bed, mister, before you get caught.”
“Aw.” He turned his large, pleading eyes up at her, but she refused to back down. “Fine.” He relented. “But only if you promise to tell me a story later.”
“I’ll tell you a story, all right.” She tousled his dark hair. “One about little boys who don’t mind their parents and sneak around the house while they’re supposed to be sleeping. Can you guess the end?”
He gave a small, but exasperated sigh. “I’m going. I’m going.” He turned for the cellar, but stopped and looked back. “I’m glad Mother was right. I’d miss you too much if you never came back!” And then he skipped away to return to his coffin.
Alone, Bethina wandered to a side door and out onto the wide wraparound porch. The sky to the west flamed red and gold, and stray autumn leaves danced and swirled in the early evening breeze. She dropped to the porch and drew her knees up to her chest. Jane’s words flitted through her mind, “Just wait until you’re dying and they look the other way and pretend they couldn’t share some of that immortality with you.” Would they really do that? And even if they didn’t, would she really want them to share? Did she want to live forever, knowing that she’d never change?
“What’s that old adage? The journey is in the reward? No, the journey is the reward?” She couldn’t find the exact words, but it didn’t matter. The essence was there. It was the road that mattered, not the destination because they were all headed to the same place, just some sooner than others.
Maybe Jane was right about one thing. Maybe she could look at things differently because she was staring down death. She knew she’d never get married and have children of her own, so what was the harm in letting her dote on Alexander while she could? Wasn’t it better to be here, near someone she cared about, than locked away in some sanatorium, sleeping in outdoor pavilions that were supposed to cure her? IN the end, whether they looked away, or even killed her themselves rather than letting her last days linger, surely it was better here than being there? “Yes”, she told herself firmly. “It has to be better. No matter what happens.”