[TW: Suicide reference.]
It arrived in a big black box.
Thinking back, she wishes she had left it there, closed her ears to the whispers, shut the door on the ghostly garment. Left it well alone.
There was no note, no card, just the plain black box adorned with a thick gold ribbon, sitting on the doorstep waiting to be unwrapped.
From the hallway, it haunted her thoughts, seeming somehow to creep ever closer to the door, needling and nudging her to let it in, until the murmurs grew so great it could not be ignored and she capitulated, shuffling the package over the threshold. Once inside, its power increased, dragging her towards and away from it in a desperate dance of lure and resolve.
Lure always wins.
She tugged the bow, watched it slip silently onto the floor. The lid of the box was as air, sliding smoothly up, up, until it was off and there was no turning back. As she peeled back layer after layer of tissue paper, the dress revealed itself, slippery silk playing hide and seek between the crinkled sheets.
Held it up to the light, rainbows rippled over the gown’s shimmering surface, the material like water over her hands as she moved it this way and that, mesmerised. Moments later, she was undressed, slipping into satin, revelling in its fluid, shivery embrace.
She remembers how the material flowed and folded itself around her, wrapping her up like a gift; the widening of her eyes as she stared at herself incomprehensibly in the mirror. She remembers her face shifting, something crawling beneath the surface, remoulding her features, modifying nerves and tendons, sinew and bone.
Now, her sunken hands grip the sides of the armchair. Above the mantelpiece, a lone painting looms large in the tiny room. She risks a glance at the figure in the frame: head held high, body poised, dress cascading from shoulder to toe. She recognises the face, has seen it ripple beneath her own.
Her eyes slide to the matchbox in her hands, which tremble slightly as she nudges one end of the cardboard tray, reveals the thin sticks packed in like soldiers, each speckled tip ready to strike, ignite a blaze. Great things come in small packages.
She remembers the baby. The longed-for baby, her bump straining against the dress, the stretch of it constricting against her growth, fighting for attention. She remembers the blood, so much blood which stained the sheets, the carpet, her hands, the blood which flowed for days and yet barely skimmed the surface of the silk, repelled as oil on water, not a single spot remaining.
Two matchsticks: one for the baby, one for her husband. A third for her mother who died grandchild-less and alone.
She remembers the letters, written as the cuffs of the dress tightened around her wrists, her hands looping letters across swathes of scented paper, each page fresh with poison. She remembers the spate of suicides which followed in their wake. She shakes the matchbox, tips a fresh pile of sulphur-tipped tinder into her open palm.
The sunlight is fading now, casting shadows over the painting. She must hurry.
She remembers the prom queen, handsome in a hand-me-down gown, battered and broken in the back seat of a classic car; recalls the young bride, a blushing beauty in something borrowed, a blue ribbon threaded through the intricate plaits in her hair, who found her husband-to-be with the bridesmaid hours before the ceremony and took herself off to dance alone in the honeymoon suite, dangling from the thick oak beams.
There are rows upon rows now, tiny slivers of wood – a mini regiment stretched across her lap. The dress resists, she can feel it, tightening its hold, pulling the lace taut across her throat, but she fights back, hauling herself to her feet, grasping a fistful of matches, edging towards the door.
She stares at the painting, defiant as she performs her final act of rebellion. There will be no revival, no legacy; she will not force this poisoned chalice into the hands of her heirs; this must be the end forever and ever amen. The smell of gasoline hits hard as she reels and gags.
The painted lady’s eyes widen in horror as the dress redoubles its campaign, twisting itself around the legs of the chair, forcing her forwards, away from the doorway and into the room.
But she is prepared, has had years to prepare.
She steels her stance, for once fighting hard enough to overcome the spectral gown, her tiny wooden army gathered on the doorstep – a squadron scattered on stone. Teeth grinding as tendons strain and pop, she peels the dress from her skin and with a last burst of strength, flings it into the room. One by one, she strikes the head of each match, firing them forwards as she lurches back, every splintered sin summoning a lustrous lick of flame. She shivers in the sudden silence, watches it all burn clean.
Abi Hennig lives in Brighton, by the sea. In between teaching and writing mini stories, she spends her time losing gracefully at complicated board games and running slowly up hills. Her words have popped up in various places including Janus Literary, Molotov Cocktail and Sledgehammer Lit mags. She tweets @abihennig