“Are you sure he can’t kill her?” she asks.
I look back. She’s actually kneeling on the floor beside Anna; she’s actually had the balls to touch her, to hold her by the shoulders and look at the wound Will made. It’s seeping black blood to strange effect: the black liquid is mixing with the moving blood of her dress, swirling like ink dropped into red water.
“She’s so weak,” Carmel whispers. “I think she’s really hurt.”
“Shouldn’t she be?” Thomas asks. “I mean, I don’t want to side with Will I’m-Bucking-for-an-Emmy-Nod Rosenberg, but isn’t that why we’re here? Isn’t she still dangerous?”
The answers are yes, yes, and yes. I know that, but I can’t seem to think straight. The girl at my feet is defeated and my knife is gone and scenes from How to Murder Your Daughter are still playing in my head. This is where it happened—this is the place where her life ended, where she became a monster, where her mother dragged a knife across her throat and cursed her and her dress and—
I walk farther into the sitting room, staring at the floorboards. Then I start stomping. Slamming my foot against the boards and jumping up and down, looking for a loose spot. It’s not doing any good. I’m stupid. I’m not strong enough. And I don’t even know what I’m doing.
“It’s not that one,” Thomas says. He’s staring at the floor. He points at the board to my left.
“It’s that one,” he says. “And you’ll need something.” He gets up and runs out the door. I didn’t think he had any strength left at all. The kid is surprising. And damned useful, because about forty seconds later he’s back, holding a crowbar and a tire iron.
Together we hack at the floor, at first not making a dent and then slowly cracking the wood. I use the crowbar to pry up the loosest end and fall to my knees. The hole we’ve made is dark and deep. I don’t know how it’s there. I should be looking at rafters and basement, but there’s only blackness. Only a moment’s hesitation, and my hand is searching in the hole, feeling depths of cold. I think I was wrong, that I was stupid again, and then my fingers brush against it.
The fabric feels stiff and cool to the touch. Maybe a little damp. I pull it out of the floor where it was stuffed and sealed sixty years ago.
“The dress,” Carmel breathes. “What—?”
“I don’t know,” I say honestly. I walk toward Anna. I have no idea what effect the dress will have on her, if anything. Will it make her stronger? Will it heal her? If I burned it, would she evaporate into thin air? Thomas would probably have a better idea. Together he and Morfran could probably come up with the right answer, and if they didn’t, then Gideon could. But I don’t have that kind of time. I kneel and hold the stained fabric before her eyes.
For a second she doesn’t do anything. Then she struggles to her feet. I move the bloody dress up with her, keeping it at eye level. The black has receded: Anna’s clear, curious eyes are there inside of the monstrous face, and for some reason that’s more disconcerting than anything. My hand is shaking. She’s standing before me, not hovering, just looking at the dress, crumpled and red and dingy white in some places.
Still not sure what I’m doing, or what I’m trying to do, I gather it up by the hem and slide it over her dark and writhing head. Something happens immediately but I don’t know what. A tension enters the air, a cold. It’s hard to explain, like there’s a breeze but nothing is moving. I pull the old dress down over her bleeding one and step back. Anna closes her eyes and breathes deep. Streaks of black wax still cling to the fabric where the candles dripped during the curse.
“What’s happening?” Carmel whispers.
“I don’t know,” Thomas answers for me.
As we watch, the dresses begin to fight each other, dripping blood and black and trying to merge together. Anna’s eyes are closed. Her hands are in fists. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but whatever it is, it’s happening fast. Every time I blink I open my eyes to a new dress: now white, now red, now blackened and mixed with blood. It’s oil and paint and things sinking into sand. And then Anna throws her head back, and the cursed dress crumbles off, cracking into dust to tumble to her feet.
The dark goddess stands looking at me. Lengths of black tendrils die in the breeze. Veins recede back into her arms and neck. Her dress is white and unstained. The wound from my knife is gone.
She puts her hand to her cheek in disbelief and looks shyly from Carmel to me, and over at Thomas, who backs up a step. Then she slowly turns and walks toward her open door. Just before she walks through it, she looks over her shoulder at me and smiles.