“Is she all right?” Anna asks in a curiously high voice.
“Good. I thought I might have bruised her. And she has such a pretty face.”
Anna isn’t looking at me. She’s fiddling with the wood of the railing. She’s trying to get me to say something, but I don’t know what it is.
“I need you to tell me what happened to you. I need you to tell me how you died.”
“Why do you want to make me remember that?” she asks softly.
“Because I need to understand you. I need to know why you’re so strong.” I start thinking out loud. “From what I know of it, your murder wasn’t that strange or horrific. It wasn’t even that brutal. So I can’t figure out why you are the way you are. There has to be something…” When I stop, Anna is staring at me with wide, disgusted eyes. “What?”
“I’m just starting to regret that I didn’t kill you,” she says. It takes my sleep-deprived brain a minute to understand, but then I feel like a total ass. I’ve been around too much death. I’ve seen so much sick, twisted shit that it rolls off my tongue like nursery rhymes.
“How much do you know,” she asks, “about what happened to me?”
Her voice is softer, almost subdued. Talking about murder, spitting out facts is something I grew up around. Only now I don’t know how to do it. With Anna standing right in front of me, it’s more than just words or pictures in a book. When I finally spit it out, I do it quickly and all at once, like pulling off a Band-Aid.
“I know that you were murdered in 1958, when you were sixteen. Someone cut your throat. You were on your way to a school dance.”
A small smile plays on her lips but doesn’t take hold. “I really wanted to go,” she says quietly. “It was going to be my last one. My first and last.” She looks down at herself and holds out the hem of her skirt. “This was my dress.”
It doesn’t look like much to me, just a white shift with some lace and ribbons, but what do I know? I’m not a chick, for one, and for two, I don’t know much about 1958. Back then it might have been the bee’s knees, as my mom would say.
“It isn’t much,” she says, reading my mind. “One of the boarders we had around that time was a seamstress. Maria. From Spain. I thought she was very exotic. She’d had to leave a daughter, only a little younger than me, when she came here, so she liked to talk to me. She took my measurements and helped me to sew it. I wanted something more elegant but I was never that good at sewing. Clumsy fingers,” she says, and holds them up like I’ll be able to see what a mess they can make.
“You look beautiful,” I say, because it’s the first thing that pops into my stupid, empty head. I consider using my athame to cut my tongue out. It’s probably not what she wanted to hear, and it came out all wrong. My voice didn’t work. I’m lucky it didn’t do the Peter Brady and crack. “Why was it going to be your last dance?” I ask quickly.
“I was going to run away,” she says. Defiance shines in her eyes just like it must have then, and there’s a fire behind her voice that makes me sad. Then it goes out, and she seems confused. “I don’t know if I would have done it. I wanted to.”
“I wanted to start my life,” she explains. “I knew I would never do anything if I stayed here. I would’ve had to run the boarding house. And I was tired of fighting.”
“Fighting?” I take another step up closer. There’s a tail of dark hair falling down her shoulders, which slump as she hugs herself. She’s so pale and small, I can hardly imagine her fighting anyone. Not with her fists anyway.
“It wasn’t fighting,” she says. “And it was. With her. And with him. It was hiding, making them think I was something weaker, because that’s what they wanted. That’s what she told me my father would have wanted. A quiet, obedient girl. Not a harlot. Not a whore.”
I take a deep breath. I ask who called her that, who would say that, but she’s not listening anymore.
“He was a liar. A layabout. He played love to my mother but it wasn’t real. He said he would marry her and then he would have all the rest.”
I don’t know who she’s talking about, but I can guess what “all the rest” was.
“It was you,” I say softly. “It was you he was really after.”
“He would … corner me, in the kitchen, or outside by the well. It was paralyzing. I hated him.”