A Rolls-Royce collected me, gold, trimmed in chrome and upholstered in velvet with a smoked glass partition between my seat and the chauffeur. I’d never ridden in one, never seen one though I’d heard the name. I sat, gliding down the road, wrapped in a dream of steel and rubber.
Gravel crunched beneath the tires and, through the windows, tall trees rushed by, upright and hunter green in the night. They blurred, merging, morphing into a wall. They looked like pine or spruce and I imagined the sharp scent of sap. But, in the closed cab, my perfume was overwhelming.
It had all come from him; the dress of bright beaded sunrise, the expensive bottle of scent, the stockings, the shoes. A box had arrived two hours before the car, plain white, no ribbon, no card. The tissue paper had been fresh as driven snow. I had thought he would be more extravagant, that his flair would have come through in the wrapping. But the dress had made up for the plainness and, seeing the detailing and silk, I found myself thankful for the white box and unwrinkled tissue.
I wore gold tonight, becoming spark or flame, a lighted window facing darkness. I matched the car, all glitter and chrome, encased in gold stockings and dancing shoes. He’d picked a shade that set off the warm tones in my ordinary brown hair, in my run-of-the-mill dark eyes. Reflected in the bathroom mirror had been a woman I’d never seen before, her smile one I didn’t know.
The car slowed, following the curve of a circular drive before a great pale house. My stomach clenched. The house was dark, seemingly empty, shut tight against visitors and ghosts. I thought the car might continue, that we’d sweep past the house and back down the long tunnel of the drive, where the trees would bend to pluck at my dress, to pull the feather from my hair.
But no; the car stopped, rumbling, purring in satisfaction. I hesitated, wondering if the chauffeur would open my door. He remained seated, head forward. My palms were slick with sweat, my armpits prickled. I sucked in breath for calm. Screwing up my courage, I fumbled with the door latch and pushed it open. I stepped out, shutting the door behind me. The car pulled away before I heard the latch click.
Alone, I looked up at the house. The muggy summer air mouthed my skin, collecting in the hollow of my collar bone, slipping beneath the silk of my slip to run sticky fingers over my thighs.
I went up the wide front steps to the brass knocker gleaming in the light of the moon and I knocked. A ripple of unease at the night, at the hushing of wind through trees, the silence of the facade, tickled across my neck, raising hairs.
I nervously bunched the dress in my hand, feeling the bite of beadwork, rumpling perfection. I forced myself to let it go, to relax.
The door swung open, a little sun exploding and engulfing me. Monroe was there. I smelt the tobacco of the cigar clamped between his teeth, felt his hands before I saw him. I found his eyes, smiling, as he ushered me inside.
Live music assailed me, so loud I put my hands to my ears. A thumping, swinging jazz, the smoke of the singer’s voice something almost solid that I inhaled with each breath I took. From the outside, the place had been forlorn, abandoned, but inside a thousand voices filled the space. Monroe eased me through a crowd of so many people that they obscured the artwork on the walls. The high ceilings gathered curled cigarette smoke.
He had not spoken yet – it was too noisy, other people’s conversations too intrusive. He took me to a corner in a wide sitting room, the back wall all leaded glass windows looking onto the lawn. Even here, he pressed his mouth to my ear to be heard.
“I’m so glad you came.”
I nodded, glancing at him, an inner shiver of delight too much to take.
“You are so lovely.”
I smiled, fingering the dress, touching his shoulder and standing on my toes until my lips brushed his ear. “Thank you for the dress.”
He smiled, surveying the room and his guests. I wondered how he knew so many people or if, in the way of such events, they had arrived without invitation or knowledge of the host, to drink gin and dance. He didn’t seem to mind.
He mimed getting a drink; I nodded, and he snaked away. I watched as a guest stopped him, voices raised to carry on a conversation. I admired the cut of his white tuxedo, marveling that he kept it so clean. The partygoers wore their finery, black tie and pearls, filmy transparent gowns revealing dimpled bodies, the sparkle of diamonds outshone by rubies and emeralds. I felt out of place among them, an observer, a child in her mother’s party dress who’d thought, for just a moment, that she might fit in.
I crossed to an open floor-to-ceiling window, the low sill easily stepped over. My dress caught on the latch and I pulled it free. A thousand golden beads spilled to the paving stones.
Swearing, I turned and inspected the rip. It would be noticeable and reflected in the eyes of the other women. I looked down at the beads scattered at my feet, too small to retrieve, and they sparkled in the light of the party, a tiny galaxy of stars laid aside by a clumsy god.
Stepping into the quiet of the garden, I wished it all away. The party dimmed, became muted, a play on a distant stage, with each step I took across the patio until my feet sank into thick grass. Before me, dark pines rose, concealing wolves and hidden monsters. My shadow ran toward the line of trees, tripping ahead of me. I paused, uneasy, unwilling to turn my back to the trees but wishing to see the house, lit and glowing and shining in the night.
Music moved my muscles, the brassy jazz sliding into a tango, the heat of it touching the base of my spine. I turned.
Every window on the bottom floor shone, curtains open, latches undone so the panes could swing wide in the sultry air. Each held a collection of faces, like walking through an art gallery of paintings that always changed, that continued to shift as I watched.
This crowd twinkled, glistened with makeup and wine, darkened brows lifting and red lips closing around cigarettes. They were alien, gods and goddesses perched on a pinnacle. What had drawn Monroe to me at the Hudsons’ party? What did I have that lured him, that tempted, that brought me to this place?
My thoughts conjured him, pulled him into being out of light and noise. He held a single glass of champagne.
“There you are.” He crossed the terrace, holding out the glass, cut crystal with a geometric pattern. He pressed it into my hand.
“Thank you.” It was cold, as if it had sat in an ice bucket. “The night was so nice and I wanted a breath of air. Where’s yours?” I lifted my champagne.
“Too fizzy for me.” Monroe looked around at the trees, darkened like nightmares. “Maybe you’ll decide to come in for a dance.”
Not a question. I felt a tug, a tingle traveling across my skin. “Of course, I’d love to.”
He smiled. “Finish your drink.”
I tasted the sparkling wine, savoring the bubbles. Dry and sharp; I would have preferred sweet. He watched me and I blushed under his gaze, eyes on the house, his want a creature between us.
In the oppressive air it felt as if he already touched me, that his lips had conquered my body, been pressed against intimate places, tongue darting out to taste. My gaze roved over the house, cheeks red with heat.
The top floor sat dark, its black eyes looking out but refusing to let me see in. I wondered what could be upstairs, if tonight I would see a room outfitted in green and gold, feel silk sheets against damp palms.
Movement caught me, stopped me. In the corner window, though dim and seemingly empty, I had seen something. A shadow moved. A figure stepping away. I looked again. Nothing.
I finished my champagne, wanting to be inside. “Shall we?”
He plucked the glass from my hand, bent to lay it on the grass. He took me into his arms, lips against my neck, the hollow behind my ear. He pulled aside the whisper-thin strap of my dress to kiss the spot where it had rested.
“I thought we were going to dance.” I said, hands flat against his chest.
“It’s the night and your golden dress.” Another kiss. “It’s too much.”
I laughed, turning my head away, pleasure rushing me. My gaze wandered; a pale face watched from that corner room. I stiffened. Monroe took my chin, capturing my attention.
“What’s caught your eye?”
I couldn’t look away, not with his forefinger and thumb pinning me, the pressure behind his eyes on mine. I waved a hand, vaguely, toward the house. “I thought I saw someone in an upstairs window.”
“No one’s upstairs.”
I turned my head, breaking his grip. The upper windows were empty, no pale face staring out, no movement to suggest that there had been a figure watching.
“One of your guests…”
“There’s no one upstairs.”
I glanced at him, face impassive, reaching for his hand before unease could change my mind. “Let’s have that dance.”
He let me pull him toward the house, drawing him away from the odd scene in the grass, leaving those parts of ourselves behind, to fester, to weaken, to die. I refused to bring that part of me. I refused the doubt.
Inside, we danced, the floor crowded, the singer’s voice constant. The band played on, eating the night in chunks of time. Monroe danced with me once before I partnered others, men in dark suits, a woman wearing a tuxedo. None wore gold. His eyes found mine, again and again, their darkness flat in the light of the buzzing electric.
“Who did you come with?”
My partner, bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, spoke.
“I didn’t come with anyone.”
An eyebrow rose.
“Monroe sent a car for me.” I wanted to say it was a Rolls-Royce. I wanted to talk about the color, rich, and the upholstery, velvet. I bit my lip.
“Oh, you’re one of his.”
I was twirled away, my partner’s hand coming back to slip around my waist, tuck me close, welcome me home. I touched my tongue to the roof of my mouth, forming a word that didn’t come out. The music ended. A new man appeared, blue eyes moving on.
I asked the question.
“Do you know anything about Monroe?”
There were no answers, nothing beyond a shrug, a slight smile. He was himself, a man with a Rolls-Royce and a large house, a man who appeared to be in possession of the goose who laid the golden egg. I wore the proof.
I looked up after several dances to find Monroe gone, the room crowded but the familiar figure nowhere in it.
I left the floor, refusing a few polite requests for dances, winding past a table laden with drinks to scoop up another glass of champagne. Cold against my hand, I raised the glass to my temple and held it there until my brow cooled. I swayed toward the front of the house, passing the locked front door. I paused, reaching to feel the grain, touch the brass lock.
Spinning, I enjoyed the lightness of champagne flowing through me. A few glanced toward me, away. And, as I twirled, the stairs came into view.
The top sat in darkness, the night come in and sent to bed without supper. I placed my foot on the first rise, feeling the room observing me, refusing to turn, to see.
The next step, and another; I clutched the banister, knuckles going white. I paused at the landing, back straight, quivering with tension. I did look then, a glance out of the corner of my eye. If anyone returned my curiosity, I didn’t catch them, and perhaps they were uninterested in the golden girl rising into darkness.
I hesitated on the last stair, considering a line to have been crossed, and then decided. I dove into the beyond, into the places on the other side.
The smell was different here. The open windows downstairs hadn’t let enough air in, not enough that it could reach upstairs, to flow along the hall lined with closed doors. No light here. Even the little that followed me up the stairs paused.
I went on alone.
My champagne glass was empty, quickly gone. I stumbled, pausing to set it on the carpet, forgotten as soon as my fingers let go. I stretched my arms wide, unable to touch both walls at once, bouncing between them.
The end came with a crash, sudden in the dark. My own face stared back. I screamed, my hands going to my mouth, stumbling back, tripping to sit abruptly on the carpet. I looked up.
A large mirror reflected black and a distant spark of light at the top of the stairs.
I giggled, falling back, flattening the fashionable knot I’d twisted my long hair into. I hadn’t bobbed it, but had achieved something almost like one with a few diamond stick pins that pricked me now.
A voice. “Are you all right?” A woman’s voice. It stopped my laughter, my heart. Rough, screamed raw, it crept across me, sucking breath from my body. It came lower, in register and location, as if the person were lying flat on the floor, mouth pressed to a crack. “Are you all right?”
I rolled over, facing the voice, reaching out and touching a door. I felt along it, between door and floor, fingers seeking. My heart skipped, stuttered, as I touched someone else’s hand.
My fingertips were gripped, the person on the other end skeletal. I could feel the bones, the skin like tissue paper. The voice, the hand, the face I’d seen in the window.
“I am.” I whispered, feeling that to speak too loudly would mean the fingers would release, draw back, and I would be left alone in the dark. My laughter from moments before seemed obscene.
I remained connected, taking shallow breathes, the champagne receding. I couldn’t hear the party. I couldn’t hear the other person. I heard nothing but my own body, the beating and breathing contained by skin.
“You should go.”
I shook my head, realized the person couldn’t see me. “No one will miss me. The party is so crowded.”
“No, leave the house. Go away.”
“Come with me”
The fingers disengaged. “The door is locked.”
“Wait,” I said. I pushed myself up, coming to my knees, fumbling with the handle of the door. It refused to turn. “Wait.” I dared to raise my voice above a whisper, hoping to keep her with me.
I scratched at the door, pushing to my feet, putting my mouth to the seal between door and casing.
“Why is your door locked?”
I spoke louder. “Who are you?”
Faint footsteps crossed a room but beneath that, a clink and rattle I couldn’t place.“Hush,” she said. “Hush or he’ll hear you.”
I blinked, trying to clear the disquiet that flowed up from the floor, chill anxiety lapping at me. “Your husband owns this house?”
I hoped that this time the word, the name, wouldn’t conjure the being.
“You need to leave,” the woman pleaded. “I saw you, on the lawn. You have to leave. You don’t understand.”
“Unlock the door. Leave the house.”
My fingers fumbled with the knob, trying to force rotation, feeling for a latch or lock that I could flip. “I can’t unlock your door.”
“Not mine. The front door. Go to the front door and unlock it and leave.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You have to leave.”
Fear, agitation made me angry, turned my voice sharp. “Stop saying that. I don’t understand. Explain.”
“There isn’t time. No time. You must leave now.”
“I don’t know why you’ve decided to scare me.” I took a step away, leaving the door, putting distance between myself and the voice. “But I think you’re being very cruel.”
I retreated another step, going backward, retracing my zigzag path down the hall. The mirror reflected a single dark figure and the light, cautious at the top of the stairs. I wanted to turn, to run for the light, the shelter it offered, but I forced calm into my stride.
The woman spoke. I had to pause, to still my heartbeat, to hold my breath. She repeated herself, again and again, her voice slurring until it became nonsense.
“He’ll kill me. he’ll kill you. Hellkillyoukillyouhellkillyou.”
My feet thumped the stairs, down and down, until my body met the front door, rattling it on the hinges. The voices stopped and I felt them, the watchers, the guests. I couldn’t keep my back to them, exposed, thin and white beneath the sheer gold dress. They were like the nightmare trees, observing with malicious intent.
I turned, a hand flying to my face. My cheeks were wet with tears, fingertips tinted black with mascara. Faces stared, the music coming in from the other room, too loud, too cheerful. I scrabbled with the lock, willing it to turn, for the door to open, for the muggy night to embrace me.
“Darling, are you all right?”
I froze. Monroe wove through the crowd, eyes unreadable. The cigar he held smoked, the blue-gray mist trailing him. Then he was at my side, a hand touching my arm, sliding up to my shoulder.
“Where have you been? I looked for you.”
His gaze bore into mine, sweat glossing my skin. He saw my fear, the reflection of it deep in his eyes, a hunter scenting the wounded, the weak. I fumbled with my gown, showed him the rip, the spot where a million beads had jumped free, escaping.
“I tore my dress.” I stumbled over my tongue, gone thick, trying to find the words I wanted. “I was looking for the powder room.”
His hands touched the rip but his eyes didn’t leave mine. “What a shame.”
I inhaled, shook my head. “I’m sorry about the dress. It was an accident. I think I ought to go home now. Too much champagne, I think.” I touched my head.
“If you come upstairs, I think I might have something to mend this.” He put pressure on my arm, slight, enough to move me. My feet, they were not mine. They belonged to the woman I’d seen earlier in the mirror at home, a stranger.
The party picked up, continuing, the voices in the hall rising to deaden my internal screams. We moved into an invisible space, ignored by the guests, relegated to an afterthought. My tongue refused to twist, to curve, to form words to capture their attention. I glanced at the door, the white painted wood smeared with mascara. Monroe mounted the first step. I followed, compelled.
I again crossed into the dark, shaking, the hem of my beaded dress dancing, shimmying. I gulped air, chest tightening, hot and cold crawling over me.
“I see you’ve already been here.” He scooped up the glass I'd forgotten, holding it up in a mock toast. "To us. 'Till death." He threw it shattering into the wall, shivering over my skin. A smile as he reached for me, touched me.
I jumped, pausing, opening my mouth to deny.
“The gold fit you well. Better than some.”
I tried to tug my arm free. His hold tightened, biting. “I think it’s time for me to go home.”
Monroe changed his grip, tucking me against him. His heart beat beside mine, through bone and blood, skin and fabric. He led me to the end of the hall. The mirror reflected two dark figures. Monroe jingled keys free from his pocket, the slide of metal against metal singing in my ears. The lock sprang open. I heard him search for the switch, the click of it.
Light filled the space and I knew exactly how it would look from outside, standing on the dark lawn and looking up; a single golden window on the second floor.
The interior shone red, metal clinking, a pair of flat eyes huge and dark. I couldn’t see her, not all at once, not with my stuttering brain and tears swimming across my vision.
Monroe smiled, covering a distance there would never be between us again. “‘Til death do us part,” he said, and took a step toward her.