by Yasmin Inkersole
Read more about the author HERE.
She chose black thread for the stems. They were dark green really, those turgid stalks of the roses that climbed up the side of her striking home. But that was the beauty of the ivory cloth she had so lovingly smoothed flat and stretched onto the embroidery hoop. She could make that little round world anything she wanted.
Over and under. Her thread was a wave, tumbling through fabric like water over a rockpool. Hers was an almost silent sea, unlike the ceaseless roar of the ocean that called through the open window. Outside, at the bottom of the cliff edge where Rackley Manor had set down like a great beast coming to rest at the coastline, the sea bit its teeth into chalky rock.
Her hand left behind no such destruction. Everything she made was beautiful. She had known that, even as a girl. It would have been egotistical to say, so she had kept her mouth closed all these years while her hands worked busily, pulling and threading and tying off. She let others do the talking for her. My, that is a stunning shawl, Agnes! Did you make even those fine edges?
If there was one person who praised her more than any other, it was Cora. In fact, praise was the first thing that fell from her mouth that day when she flew through the drawing room door, furs hanging over one arm and an embroidery hoop of her own gripped in hand.
“What a gorgeous motif, darling!” She cried in greeting, dominating the room with that way she had of sweeping into spaces like the prized guest at a party.
“Cora!” Agnes hastened to make a loose knot; she couldn’t risk losing her morning’s work to a hanging thread. She set her sewing down and stood up to embrace her friend, scenting salt and yarrow on her neck. “You have been walking the coast again?” She asked as they separated.
“Oh yes,” Cora spoke eagerly. The beauty of her face shone when her mood was excited like this: her fine, dark brows pulled slightly upwards; burgundy-painted lips parted in a smile. Her auburn hair had been caught up and strung along in the breeze and somehow looked the better for it, as if she were some forest fairy blown in by a storm. “I have been thinking again.”
Agnes bit back a smile. “I told you, a little too much of that and you’ll never find your way out of that mind of yours. Is this not your twelfth walk of the week?” It was easy to keep track. Cora had a habit of dropping in at Rackley Manor on her walks, as it was the furthest she went before turning back towards her own home.
“Eighteenth,” Cora whispered conspiratorially. “Don’t tell Freddy. He wouldn’t like to know that I wander at night. It’s the only reason I didn’t drop in on you the other six times; I shouldn’t like to wake you.”
Agnes’ smile evaporated. “Cora, it’s dangerous to be out along the coast in the dark-”
“Hush, hush, I haven’t come to be chided,” Cora batted her words away with her embroidery hoop.
“But you must promise me you won’t go out alone-”
“I brought you something; you must do me a little favour, Aggie.” Cora thrust the hoop out towards her.
Agnes frowned, still wanting to return to the topic of these midnight walks, but Cora took her wrist and pulled her down beside her on the settee.
“Now, I know you have your own lovely pieces to finish,” Cora gestured generally at the drawing room. Every surface was covered in some fabric or another. The writing desk was draped with a puffy white underskirt, and lined up on the floor, all along the skirting board, was the series of miniature embroidered portraits Agnes had started the year before.
“But I have a commission of the utmost priority.” Cora placed her hoop in Agnes’ lap. “It’s for Freddy, you see. It is our anniversary tomorrow – five years. I have been wanting to get him a gift, I just couldn’t think of the right thing, and I was out last night walking-”
“At what hour?”
“-and thinking… I can’t seem to stop myself thinking, these days,” a strange, fleeting look passed over her face, like a doomed woman catching sight of the gallows, so fast Agnes wondered if she had imagined it. Then Cora was smiling again, “and then I thought of you, and your marvellous talents. I wondered if you would make this for me.”
Agnes looked down at the fabric in her lap. Cora had drawn a design onto it, ready to be stitched.
“Joseph has invited us for dinner tomorrow evening anyway, so we shall both be here. It would be perfect – you could hand me the present before we sit down to eat, and I could say… Well, would you mind very much, Aggie, if I said that I had made it for him? Only you know how useless I am with needlework, my patience has always been too fine for it.”
Agnes had been listening to her somewhere, in the back of her mind. Her eyes, though, were fixated on Cora’s drawing. It was certainly Freddy, she could tell that much from the sharp silhouette of his rigid shoulders. But if she hadn’t known the man for the better part of six years, there would have been no telling that it was him. For, besides his carefully pencilled upper body dressed in a dinner jacket, there was nothing more of his portrait drawn onto the cloth.
“Cora, he has no head.” Even as she said the words, they caught roughly on Agnes’ tongue. Something about him standing faceless on the fabric stirred a worry within her, like that first flutter of apprehension when one begins to slip into a nightmare. An urgent need to push the image away rose in her chest but just as she lifted the hoop to hand it back, Cora caught her arm.
“You would be doing me the greatest of favours,” Cora said firmly. “Do you know, there isn’t a single portrait of Freddy in our house? Not one?” She looked deep into Agnes’ eyes as she said this, as if rooting about in them for something. “As for the head – you shall have to forgive me. My skill with a pencil is little more than that with a needle. I thought it best to leave it up to your expert imagination.” She stood up, clutching her furs to her chest. The hem of her long blue dress was stained with mud and sand. “You will do it, darling?”
“In time for dinner tomorrow? It is so soon-”
“You are so talented, Aggie. I just know that if anyone can figure it out, it’s you.” She shot her such a look, then, of pure curiosity that it lingered in Agnes’ thoughts long after Cora had swept out of the door.
Agnes spent the afternoon perfecting the shoulders. Black and blue thread, over and under. She had seen Freddy in a suit like this before; it would work well to bring out the colour of his eyes. He had sky blue eyes. She could picture them perfectly in her mind. And yet whenever her needle so much as hovered above that blank space on the fabric where they ought to be, an invisible ball pushed her tongue flat against the bottom of her mouth. Her breath snagged in her ribcage, as though something terrible had come up right behind her and if she were to turn around, to strain her ears over the sudden thundering of her heart, she might just catch –
She twisted in her seat. Blessed air streamed through her nose down into her lungs. She could feel sweat under her arms, in her hairline. She forced herself to smile. She must be tired. She must not have had enough to eat today.
“I think I am finished for now.” Agnes could not bring herself to look at the embroidery as she set it down. “The good daylight has almost faded anyway.”
It was true; Joseph’s face was half-cast in shadow as he stood in the doorway. The dwindling sun flattered him, drawing out the firm shape of his jawline and his domineering aquiline nose. One eye glimmered a brighter brown than the other, like two neighbouring stars in a constellation.
“Then perhaps you will join me in the garden? I thought we would take tea outside again today.”
She stood and walked towards him, hooking her arm through his proffered one. The feeling of his body beside her, so much taller and larger than her own, gave her immediate relief. She leant into him, matching his long strides, eager to put a distance between herself and the drawing room.
It rained that night, the first real rain of the summer. The season was turning, Agnes could feel it in the air. Rain shook the thin windows bleeding moonlight onto the carpet. Agnes lay sleepless right at the edge of the large bed, the mattress shifting gently with the weight of Joseph’s breathing. He always slept deeply like that, the moment they blew out the candles. It must be easier for him, Agnes thought. He says he never dreams.
She, on the other hand, was afraid to close her eyes. It was childish. And yet somehow she knew that if she were to close them, she would see the embroidery again. That headless neck and shoulders startling against the white fabric. Why did it bother her so? It wasn’t as if she had never sewn a portrait before. Only a year ago she had stitched a miniature of Cora and sealed it in a pendant.
This was different, though. She might not be able to say why but she knew it, along the length of her spine, spreading outwards to the tips of her fingers. Her nerves were radiating, filling her with the urge to rip off the bedsheets and tear out of the house, to get as far away from that thing as she could.
“Stop it,” she whispered to herself, rubbing at her temple. “You are being ridiculous.”
She peeled the duvet back and rose slowly out of bed.
She padded across the bedroom floor, forcing herself to walk evenly, to take deep breaths. She was reminded again of childhood, of that fear of the closed cupboard in the corner of the room and the monster lurking within. Only by opening the door and looking inside could she convince herself.
She stepped out onto the landing, casting a glance back at Joseph. He looked peaceful in the dim light, so still, flat on his back. He could almost have been dead.
The first step down the staircase sent a flood of panic through her. Her hands balled into fists. Rain hammered against the windows, clawing to be let in. Agnes thought of Cora. Was she walking along the cliffs tonight? Out there alone, soaked to the skin, thinking? Cora wouldn’t be afraid. She had never been scared of anything.
Agnes fixed her eyes on the bottom of the staircase, where the shadow of a candle danced against the wallpaper. Down, down, down, she went, descending the stairs before her fear could catch up to her.
She pushed open the drawing room door and threw herself inside, her heartbeat like horses’ hooves pounding the earth at a gallop. Nauseous, she glanced around the room. Just the sight of this space normally filled her with peace; made her fingers itch for thread and a needle. Now she wished she were anywhere else in the world.
“Come on, Aggie,” she hissed, flushed with anger at herself. How silly to be scared of an embroidery.
She walked over to the settee. Her day’s work lay on the yellow cushion: Freddy’s chest in his blue and black suit.
“See,” she whispered. “It’s nothing.”
But her hands were trembling. The fear, if anything, was greater now, like a draft slipping under the door and turning into a howl that ripped through the hallways.
Maybe finishing the damned thing would take it out of her head. She forced herself to sit and, with shaking fingers, she gathered her thread. It took her four tries to thread the needle. In her final attempt, she focussed so hard she pushed its sharp point right down into the soft flesh of her finger.
She put her index finger in her mouth and sucked at the bleeding wound, while her right hand came down to the fabric and froze there. Just finish it, she willed herself. You won’t be afraid anymore.
Pushing her hand down felt like fighting against a block of lead. Her legs itched to tear her away from the room. The needle pierced the cloth. Pink thread slipped cleanly from one side to the other.
And she was away.
Her bleeding finger fell limply out of her mouth. She sped over where Freddy’s neck should be, making one pink cross stitch after another. Her hand flew over his Adam’s apple and came up to the bottom of his face. She tied, cut, and switched the thread to black, threading the eye in one perfect motion.
Running stitches chased each other in a wide, misshapen circle right up to the edges of the wooden hoop. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew no face could possibly be so disproportionally large. But her fingers were determined, filling in the shape with black, stopping to change to red thread a few rows in. She sewed as though recreating some vivid memory, watching her hands as if they were not her own.
She worked feverishly, hunched over the hoop, hardly pausing to breathe. She looked to the next stitch and then the one after that. She only stopped to see the whole of what she had created at the very end, when the final stitch was done, the last knot tied. The needle dropped to her side. Her fingers were aching.
She stared down at what she had made.
Freddy’s head was a great black void, punctuated in the centre by a fleshy red ring. As the rain battered the house, Agnes clapped a hand over her mouth. A giant, black, wormlike head opened up to reveal the inside of its long tubular mouth. The eyeless, noseless face was angled up from the hoop as if to devour her.
She shot away from it, flying across to the wall at the other side of the room.
She put a hand out to steady herself – and snapped it back just as quickly, as if it had been bitten. The wallpaper – the beautiful, pink satin wallpaper – was grey and black, covered with a kind of woolly fungus that writhed around the faded flower pattern.
Her head spun. She took in the whole room in frantic, frightened glances, not daring to let herself linger on any one place. In fleeting pictures it all unfurled before her: the settee was the rotting severed leg of some great rhino-skinned animal; the carpet the hide of a different creature, peeling like bark and weeping sticky black liquid onto the floor. Only her embroideries remained the same. The miniatures stood to attention, pretty little soldiers arranged like a battalion facing the disintegrating fireplace.
Agnes turned on her heel and ran.
In the hallway, the candle was a fat, squealing grub nailed into the wall, its glowing tail writhing angrily. She tore past it, a scream escaping from her mouth. She flew to the bottom of the staircase, the animal noises issuing from her lips forming into one word, over and over-
Breathing in flurries of muggy air, she felt herself on the brink of collapse. None of this was real. How could it be real? She heard footsteps above her and looked desperately to the landing upstairs.
For a moment everything appeared normal: the oak bannister, the silk carpet waterfalling down the steps. But her eyes smarted and the stairs jumped like a frame in a zoetrope, transforming into a pile of huge, dead beetles, staggered one above the other.
A cold dread soaked through Agnes’ skin. She couldn’t even hear her heartbeat, she felt so far from her own body, so lost in whatever hell this was.
“Darling, whatever’s the matter?”
Agnes’ eyes clawed their way over the mound of gigantic pincered, desiccated black beetles, their bodies slumped over each other. Standing at the top of them was Joseph. He was wearing the blue silk pyjamas she had bought him for Christmas. Sticking out from his delicate collar was a bulging, writhing head, a pulsating fleshy column. The skin of the featureless head peeled back as he spoke and his words poured out of a crimson inner mouth lined with a row of dark jagged teeth.
“Come back to bed,” Joseph said, dribbling a globule of tar-black saliva that burned right through the carpet beneath him.
The doorbell rang at exactly 6:59pm. Cora Wrennings was never late.
“Cora, Freddy!” Joseph welcomed them, making an effort to sound cheerful. “Oh, you needn’t have,” he protested, as Cora held out a bottle of vintage red towards him.
“It’s nothing at all, darling,” Cora insisted. “Afterall, it’s you and Aggie doing us the favour, hosting us on our anniversary night.”
“We are much obliged,” Freddy said bashfully, as Cora stepped over the threshold. She peeled her coat off with one hand and held it towards Joseph without really looking at him. Her eyes were dancing up the hallway.
“And where is Agnes?”
“She… has taken ill,” Joseph murmured. “I almost sent word to you to cancel tonight but I think it might do her good to see you.” He shuffled uncertainly on the spot. “She’s not in her right mind.”
“Where is she?” Cora asked instantaneously. Joseph cocked his head at her. His black, rubbery face flopped sideways, exposing his sharp teeth. Cora smiled at him broadly. “Maybe I can cheer her up.”
“Yes, of course. She is out in the garden. But she won’t speak to anyone-”
“She will speak to me,” Cora said resolutely, starting down the corridor.
She opened the rotting French doors and stepped out into the beautiful garden. She had always envied the view at Rackley: the long lawn stretched out right to the edge of the chalky cliff, deep borders of flowers disappearing into the view of the long, lapping sea.
At the far end of the garden, right up at the edge of the land, sat Agnes: a tiny, huddled shape like a rock on the coastline. Cora took a deep breath and puffed herself up. This was going to need a sensitive approach.
Agnes stared fixedly at the sea, watching one wave roll over another. She heard Cora’s skirt swishing through the long grass.
“What are you doing all the way out here?” Cora asked tenderly.
“It’s the only thing that hasn’t changed.” Agnes’ voice was barely a wisp.
“And me?” Cora spoke softly. “Have I changed?”
Agnes’ head turned very slowly, as if she were peering around a corner where something terrible might be awaiting her. Her gaze landed on Cora’s beautiful, familiar face. “No,” she croaked. “You’re just the same.”
Cora dropped to the grass beside Agnes and pulled her into a tight embrace, holding her against her shoulder as Agnes sobbed.
“I’m sorry,” Cora whispered into her ear, looking guiltily down at the ground. “I’m so sorry, Aggie.”
Agnes pulled away from her, wiping her eyes. “You knew, didn’t you? You knew what I would see, what would… happen to the world?”
“Yes,” Cora sighed. “I knew.”
Agnes’ replying laugh was strained. “I don’t know if I ought to be happy or distraught. I thought I was losing my mind but if you gave me that embroidery deliberately, you must have been trying to…”
“Open your eyes?”
“I can’t understand it, Cora,” Agnes said desperately. She was milk-pale, still wearing her nightdress, her brown eyes large and doe-like. “Have we both gone mad? How could you even have known-”
Cora put a hand firmly on her shoulder. “You are not mad. If anything, you and I are saner than we have ever been. We have removed the delusion that has coated our existence. We have set ourselves free of a lie.” Cora tilted her chin up. “As for understanding it… well, I think this is the world as it really is, without the – without some kind of cloth that has been covering it from us all our lives.”
Cora looked out over the long lawn, the grass still a luscious green while the goliath of Rackley Manor lay in the distance, its beautiful stucco walls eaten up by mossy black fungus and its roof a tapestry of great rotting beige hides. “We have ripped the veil away. We can see the true world now instead of a pretend one. We have achieved a kind of enlightenment, like Victor.”
“Cora,” Agnes was on the verge of tears. “Cora please, don’t speak to me of made-up stories. I can’t – this isn’t – don’t you see,” she struggled against the hard ball in her throat, “Cora, it is so… ugly!” She clenched her eyes shut. For a moment the world was only the same simple black as it had ever been.
“Oh, it’s not so bad. It’s at least better that we see the truth of things now, don’t you think?”
Agnes didn’t answer. She thought of Joseph at the top of the stairs, of his great devouring head. “Do they know – Freddy and Joseph?” She asked anxiously, remembering Freddy’s face on the embroidery hoop.
“No,” Cora shook her head. “They can’t possibly. The way they talk and behave… they don’t seem to see any difference between us and themselves. When I first found out, I was scared, too – I tried to tell Freddy what he was. But he couldn’t understand; just thought I’d taken some kind of funny turn. He wasn’t angry at me or shocked. He was just confused. I think, maybe, they are seeing the world through the same filter as we did.”
“So their faces…”
“To them would be quite normal. The faces we remember them having, before.”
Agnes closed her eyes again, a tear tracing a line down to her chin. “I want to go back to before,” she whispered. “How did you know the embroidery would make me see? How did you even find out, yourself?”
Cora shifted on the grass. “I was out walking, two months ago. Up to the edge of Hanging Head Rock, where I always go. Suddenly I wondered what was past that fallen oak at the end of the beach. I tried to get to it on the rocky shoreline but it was as though something was blocking my path. Something invisible to me. That’s when the seed was first planted in my mind: the idea that there might be things in this world that we can’t see… And then, of course, there was the matter of the art.”
“The art?” Agnes frowned.
“It’s as I told you yesterday. There are no paintings of Freddy in our house. Somehow the thought never occurred to me to get one made, I just wrote it out of my mind as though it were inconceivable. But after that walk, I began to question it. It obsessed me, actually. You remember how many times I came here to borrow your oil paints? Well, something about painting Freddy filled me with this feeling – a sort of dread,” Cora shifted uncomfortably.
“So I thought: better do it then. Better find out what it is about this man that makes the matter of painting him so peculiar. And I did find out, as soon as I put that brush to the canvas. Something about art seems to reveal them, for what they truly are. Perhaps it is our subconscious showing us the truth.” She looked over at Agnes who was still hunched over herself like a crab missing its shell. “Think of Joseph – have you ever made a portrait of him? Or sewn so much as a stitch of his face?” She read into Agnes’ silence. “Why not?”
“I… I just never felt inspired to.”
“Exactly!” Cora cried. “Uninspired. And yet a flower, an ocean, a friend: these things inspire you, do they not? All the things that are the same in both worlds, both realities. It goes beyond the lack of portraits, too,” she continued eagerly, as though she had been desperate to talk about this subject for quite some time. “Have you ever noticed how they react to art? Paintings, tapestries, even dried flowers. They speak about them like furniture, they don’t seem to understand the concept of beauty.”
Agnes shook her head despairingly. “Are we the only ones like us? Is everyone else in the world…”
“Like Freddy and Joseph? Heavens, no,” Cora chuckled. Agnes frowned at her, unable to comprehend her levity. “Once your eyes are opened to the true nature of things, you can see quite clearly who is and who isn’t changed. Mr Lakers, Miss Twaite, the Ipson twins are all creatures-” Creatures, Agnes thought to herself. I am married to a creature. “-but I could see at once that Mrs Darnsley at the post office and my aunt Maria were just the same – and you, of course.”
Cora gripped Agnes’ hand in her own. Agnes’ fingers were cold and unmoving. “You are the only other person who can see it. I tried, Aggie, to keep all of this to myself. I was worried what it might do to you, to anyone. But I just got to a point where… It’s like Frankenstein’s monster. He needed someone else just like himself. Someone to navigate the world with.”
“So you asked me to sew Freddy’s portrait, knowing what it would do to me?”
“Don’t be upset, Aggie. Isn’t it better that you understand reality now?” Cora’s voice was almost pleading. It might have been forgiveness that she wanted. But Agnes suspected it ran deeper than that: Cora wanted company in this new, terrible world.
“Better?” Agnes blinked up at her, the word a sour pill on her tongue.
“Yes. Look, come to dinner with me. They will be waiting inside. You’ll see, it’s not all as bad as you think it is. You get used to it, in fact. The way their heads flop around… it’s quite funny. And if one of the courses is soup, well…” she smiled nervously, as if hoping Agnes might do the same.
When Cora held out her hand, Agnes felt it was as much in the hope of preserving their friendship, as it was to pull her to her feet. She stared at that outstretched hand a moment too long before accepting it.
Joseph and Freddy stood in the dining room, each with a glass of red wine in their hands. The table was a giant hunk of skin shed from a boat-sized black snake.
Freddy cocked his great flaccid head to the side, dark saliva spraying over the dining table as he spoke. “Agnes, you look…” He didn’t finish his sentence.
Agnes blinked. Perhaps Cora was right, perhaps this was funny. Hilarious, in fact, that he could stand there, a man who didn’t know that his own head was worse than a nightmare, brought to speechlessness over Agnes in her rumpled nightgown. If she wasn’t so absolutely terrified, she might have laughed.
“Darling, why don’t you join us?” Joseph asked softly. His voice, if nothing else, was the same. Deep and rich. Agnes realised with a jolt that she could not even recall his real face – no, not his real face, his other face. As Cora had said, there wasn’t a single portrait of him anywhere. It was as though her husband had been erased from history.
She gaped at him, trying to form words.
“Agnes will come with me,” Cora said firmly, gripping Agnes’ arm so tightly that it was the only thing keeping her upright. “She will get dressed and come down to dinner.”
“Of course,” said Freddy, scratching the top of his bulging ashen forehead. “Come down whenever you are ready.”
Cora pulled Agnes out into the corridor.
“Do you still kiss Freddy?” Agnes stared at her. “Do you share his bed with him, knowing what he is?”
“Not anymore,” Cora whispered, “and do keep your voice down, Aggie, please. No, we haven’t shared a room in months, he thinks I am going through a woman’s phase-”
“Cora, his head is a gigantic-”
Cora clapped a hand over Agnes’ mouth and forced her through the door to the drawing room, which she pulled promptly shut behind her as she turned exasperatedly on Agnes. “Any louder and the whole town will hear you!”
“And why shouldn’t they?” Agnes cried, throwing her hands in the air wildly. She felt charged with panic, like a cornered animal. “Shouldn’t we all lift the veil and know this precious enlightenment you speak of?”
Agnes was trying her hardest not to look at anything but Cora’s fine cheekbones and glittering eyes. But in the corner of her vision she could see something large and dark scuttling over the fireplace. The carpet sunk beneath her shoes as though it were soaked with liquid and the chair beside her was a mound of desiccated charcoal bones.
“You will be alright, Agnes,” Cora insisted. Agnes felt like a sick child being mothered. How could Cora stand there so calmly when the world had turned into something wrong, something ruined?
Agnes sank down onto the settee. She was shaking and could taste the acidic tang of vomit at the back of her throat. Her mind struggled to understand the paradox she was tangled in. She ached for home, the place where she belonged. And yet this was home. It had simply always been a lie.
“It will just take a while to get used to,” Cora tried to sound firm but the shake in her voice betrayed her.
“I’m not like you, Cora,” Agnes whispered. Words felt almost impossible, she was so full to the brim with grief. Why hadn’t she taken the time to memorise every feature of her life before? The sunlight over the drawing room in the morning, the chandelier twinkling over a dining table beautifully set for dinner. She would never see that old world again.
She would never sew a stitch again in her life. She would never hold a pencil or write a single word. Nothing beautiful could come out of her in a world like this. When she spoke again, her voice was laced with warning. “I can’t live with it.”
Cora moved towards her, as if sensing what Agnes already knew – that she was some great tower whose foundations had been destroyed. She would topple any moment and smash into a thousand pieces. Cora reached for Agnes’ shoulder but Agnes slid away from her, rising from the settee. Her skin was burning, a rush of heat flooding her veins. The urge to do something, to fix this, could not be quelled. Her fingers shook from the intense impulse to act.
Without daring to look at where she had left Freddy’s embroidery, Agnes reached down. She felt the outline of her unfinished rose embroidery alongside spools of thread and scissors. She picked up the latter and thrust them forward, puncturing the space between her and Cora.
“You did this to me,” she hissed. Part of her couldn’t believe what she was saying. Another part was consumed with venom, and the kind of fear that drives a person out of their wits. Agnes thought of the women at the mental asylum in town. Hysterical, Freddy had called them. Was that what she had become? Or was she seeing more clearly than ever before? Her hand was shaking violently, the scissors jumping to point at Cora’s neck, her cheek, her lips.
“I only meant to show you-”
“I don’t want the truth!” Agnes shrieked. Cora flinched, her gaze flicking to the doorway. “Can it be undone?” It was the only question that mattered now. If Agnes was to go on in the world, it had to be a world she could bear. Even if it wasn’t real.
“This isn’t like one of your embroideries, Aggie,” Cora said desperately, obvious fear in her wide eyes. Please accept this, they were silently begging. “I can’t just unstitch it, I can’t make the world what it was before.”
Agnes’ breath snagged in her throat. Her whole body was suffused with an incredible energy. Her eyes were swimming, seeing two sets of scissors in her hand instead of one. She wondered whether this was something she was truly capable of. The answer felt inevitable: there is no other way to live.
Agnes lurched forwards; a shriek escaped from Cora’s lips. The scissors trembled mid-air, a black thread still snagged between their shining blades. Candlelight glinted on their razor edges. The adrenaline within Agnes was unbearable now, desperate to thunder through her arm, her hand, her fingers. She closed her eyes.
“Then I’ve got to do this.”
Cora must have realised what Agnes meant just a second after she raised the scissors in the air. It was a second too late. Cora’s scream broke through the room as Agnes swung the scissors towards her own face, and with two precise strikes – she had always had a steady hand – she pierced first her right eye, then her left.
A fine shower of Agnes’ blood sprayed out over the settee, spattering the blanket and cushions, her screams mingling with Cora’s. Down the hallway, the sounds of Freddy and Joseph’s raised voices echoed off the cavernous, rotten walls. Agnes sagged to the floor. Behind her, the unfinished rose petals on her embroidery hoop were stained the most beautiful shade of red.