“Off you pop now, Eleanor,” my mother said, taking hold of my left arm, half-leading, half-dragging me through the estate’s front gate without the slightest glance at the doorman.
I offered the man an apologetic wave, though with the ulterior motive of inspecting the dull grey outlining his thin figure, having never encountered a similarly coloured emotional state. His deadpan reaction to my mother’s disregard and my attempted recompense urged me to associate the colour with that of a broken spirit.
A drizzle of rain broke from the dark sky as my mother and I followed a stone path towards the towering marble pillars that flanked the mansion’s entranceway. We climbed a set of stairs to reach the front door.
I extended a hand to the metal knocker at the door’s centre, only to have it slapped away by my mother.
“Just a moment.” My mother fumbled about at the back of her dress before drawing, from goodness knows where, a hairbrush. The plump woman went at my shoulder-length curls with enough vigour that I could have been convinced a rabid raccoon had replaced her. At my yelp, she tutted, strengthening her grip.
“Stay still, please. If you’d tend to it more often, this wouldn’t be necessary. It’s a lovely colour. It really is, but it requires effort.”
“It’s been hardly a quarter of an hour since you yanked it about in the carriage,” I said. “Perhaps your violent method is to blame.”
“Oh, the drama. I’m simply ensuring the meeting goes—”
The door opened, revealing an older man dressed in a well-fitting suit, his translucent grey outline identical to the doorman’s. He smiled, though it reached no further than his impressive moustache. “Mrs. Barrett and her enchanting daughter, I presume?”
“Mr. Beckwith! I’m terribly sorry.” With a final swipe through my hair, my mother stashed the brush. “We were just about to knock.”
The man held a white-gloved hand to his lapel. “Not to worry; I am not he. Mr. Beckwith is waiting for you both upstairs.” He gestured behind him to a fountain, around which two sets of staircases curved. “I’d be glad to escort you to him.”
He set off without awaiting a response, which—along with my mother’s icy glare—all but forced me to follow.
Atop the stairs was an enormous open space, comprising of a single dining table sizable enough to host a village. The man, who hadn’t spoken since his initial beckoning, led us down a seemingly endless stretch of mahogany, its surface adorned with silk napkins and silverware.
At the hall’s end was a set of double doors that the man pushed open before stepping aside to allow our entry into a small but no less elegant lounge, where a young man, around my own age of four-and-twenty, sat sprawled over a floral sofa.
The doors shut behind my mother. I stared at the stranger who, despite our uncomfortable proximity, had yet to acknowledge either me or my mother. Even my mother, never one to miss an opportunity to imbue a moment of silence with her every thought, stood stock still.
A twinge of irritation peeked through my bewilderment, as I stepped into the man’s line of vision. “Hello?”
He finally looked up, a mischievous smile spiking his elvish features. “Quite the agreeable pair, aren’t you? How long d’you reckon you’d have stood there?”
My mother forced a chuckle; I merely crossed my arms. “Not long. The gentleman that let us in seemed rather more tolerable.”
My mother clutched her breast. “Eleanor!”
The man sat up, his shadowed eyes narrowing as he fixed them on me, still smirking. “Tolerable is one word for him. I tend more towards bland, myself. Something you, clearly, are not.” He gestured to the set of armchairs opposite the sofa. “Sit. Please.”
Although I was not at all mollified by his sudden politeness, it helped me regain a bit of composure as I took a seat.
My mother followed suit, smoothing her dress as she settled. “It was wonderful of you to grant us this meeting, Mr. Beckwith. Your time is very much appreciated.”
With my renewed clarity, I unearthed the underlying cause of my heightened unease: Mr. Beckwith had no outline—something I’d only ever experienced with my closest relations, and which only developed after an extended period of acquaintance.
Mr. Beckwith spared my mother a cursory nod before returning his attention to me. “Why are you looking at me like that?” He pawed at his chin. “I’m certain that bush atop your head is more ghastly than anything about my appearance.”
I despised my mother’s horror almost as much as the sting his slight had inflicted, but merely shrugged in response, inspiring another of Mr. Beckwith’s mischievous grins. My initial estimate of his being four-and-twenty seemed further off by the minute.
“I’m being facetious. Even devoid of your… charm, you’re handsome enough for my interest,” he said. “Provided you possess the proper talents to match, of course.”
“I beg your pardon?” I asked, nonplussed by the far too ordinary objectification, but his phrasing struck me. “And what exactly will be happening to my ‘charm’?”
I turned to my mother, naively expecting a reaction of disdain, but instead found a proud smile and reinvigorated posture; the backhanded compliment having placated the woman’s all-consuming vanity.
Mr. Beckwith leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Well, you’ve heard the tales—or whatever those drunkards like to call their ramblings—haven’t you?”
I shook my head, glimpsing my mother’s gaze as it fell to the floor.
Mr. Beckwith’s brows rose as he leaned back against the sofa, clasping his hands behind his head. “A bit of familial deception we’ve got here, haven’t we? Too afraid to tell her the full story, Mrs. Barrett?”
“No! Not at all!” my mother said. “Nothing of the sort. I simply didn’t see fit to humour such outlandish hearsay. Why, I think—”
“It’s no matter,” he said, squaring his posture towards me. “I’m confident enough in my charms to sway you, Miss Eleanor.”
Swallowing, I drew myself to my full height. “Is part of said charm the blatant avoidance of questions?”
“I would have answered, had your domestic issues not taken precedence. Regardless,” Mr. Beckwith said before I could retort. “I think a demonstration will be a quicker way to convince you.” He wagged a finger at my mother. “Tell me, Eleanor, what’s one thing you can’t imagine your mother ever doing?”
I turned to my mother, whose ducked head inspired a twinge of pity. Irritation, though, won out. She had gone to great lengths to orchestrate this exact situation. “A grain of truth weaved into her incessant ramblings would be a good start.”
“No,” Mr. Beckwith said, a gleam in his eye. “Enough bickering. No. Something useful… something—”
His smile returned, this one with an edge of something more than mischief, as he fixed his full attention on my mother. She rose before turning her back to me and leaning forward. To my horror, she began pulling up her dress.
As the hem reached the mid-point of her thigh, I leapt from my seat and swatted her hands away. “Stop it—Mama!” I swung around as my mother persisted in collecting her dress. “Stop it. At once. Please. You’ve proven your point.”
Mr. Beckwith simply smirked. Soon after my chiding, my mother stopped, unfazed. Too unfazed. She stood tall, still facing the wall as a dull grey outline crept around her. Not since my earliest memories had she possessed an outline.
I glared at Mr. Beckwith, determined to hold my ground despite my trembling knees and the nausea afflicting my stomach. “What have you done to her?”
“Nothing terminal, I assure you. Mind you, holiday gatherings may be rather dull.”
“Family gatherings—what do these tales speak of, exactly? You’re able to manipulate people into acts of indecency? Is that why those men are so lifeless? You’ve played one too many of your games with them?”
“It isn’t that specific,” Mr. Beckwith said. “I can have anyone do anything I please. I’d have shown you directly, but I’d prefer to build on our amusing rapport a little longer.”
“I daresay, Mr. Beckwith, if this is the charm you speak of, your opportunity to develop rapport has long since passed.”
“Oh, don’t be so quick to judge, Eleanor. And please, call me Simon. I mean you no harm. I simply wanted to extend the courtesy of transparency.” He gestured to my mother, who turned to us with a bleary-eyed stare.
“A respect you’ve clearly been deprived of. You’re free to leave. Both of you, if you so desire. Free to return to your illusory freedom, whereupon your dear parents can continue to auction you off to the highest bidder.”
Though no less panicked, my feet remained glued to the rug, his words ringing with a sickening truth.
“As cruel, and very likely mad, as I may be,” Mr. Beckwith continued, “I’m not simple. And in a situation with manipulation at every turn, would you not prefer the sort characterized by self-awareness rather than self-righteousness? Equal partnership as opposed to glorified serfdom?”
I scoffed. “Partnership? You expect me to believe that? Nary an exchange has gone without you threatening me.”
“You can believe whatever you’d like. Perhaps you perceive honesty as a threat in the same way man fears death. The only concrete aspect about fear is the unknown, making it as frightening as it is intriguing. After all,” Mr. Beckwith slipped a hand into his breast pocket, “it’s only fair you know what you’re dealing with.”
He drew a paper and offered it to me. I hesitated, examining his narrow eyes, finding them a subtle green. Confronted by the great extent to which I relied on my empathic ability, I struggled to discern anything beneath the surface of his expression.
Teeth grit, I took the letter, having grown increasingly unnerved by my mother’s lifeless stance.
Neat cursive, undeniably my mother’s, lined the entire page. The artful handwriting masked a complete lack of substance; a thin sheet of glass covering a kilometre deep chasm. Its first half comprised a slew of flattery shameless enough to inspire bile within my throat.
Exaggerated praise for me adorned its latter half. Only upon reaching the final paragraph were her true intentions revealed.
I believe a union between yourself and my daughter would benefit both parties suitably. With your reputation for remarkable influence, you would find in my daughter a companion with immense potential, a potential suppressed only by her equivalent obstinacy. All I’d ask in exchange is your modest support of our family’s endeavours.
I lowered the letter to my lap, folding it in half before meeting Mr. Beckwith’s gaze. “Yes, well—domestic issues aside—you, sir, have proven yourself no superior, what with all these games. Your solution is nothing more than another problem.”
“Wouldn’t you care to hear my reason for humouring such drivel?” Mr. Beckwith asked.
I gestured to my mother, refusing to mess about any longer. “Are you able to reverse this—this state you have her in?”
“What fascinated me was her description of you. For a woman so clearly simple, and so desperate, it struck me as odd she would highlight your character. Not your talents, nor your beauty. No, she saw fit to mention your character, and I stumbled upon exactly what I desired. The way she described your talents was how I first suspected it.”
This jolted me from my panic. “Suspected what?”
Mr. Beckwith smiled, the first one to touch his eyes. “You see the colours. The beautiful counter to my destruction. I knew it the second I read that line.” He sprung from the sofa before snatching the letter from me.
“Her conscientiousness, though afflicted by excessive conviction, borders on clairvoyance, certain to complement any relation.”
Struck by the manic turn in Mr. Beckwith’s demeanour, I took my mother’s hand and yanked her to her feet. “How do you—I’m afraid I haven’t a clue about this colour business, and I am certainly not clairvoyant.”
As I turned towards the door, Mr. Beckwith leapt in front of me, his shoulder crashing into the door’s wood. “You do. You can see them. I’m certain of it. My will has no effect on you.”
I stumbled backwards, releasing my mother’s hand, as she continued to loiter by Mr. Beckwith, unperturbed.
“Please,” I said, frantically searching for another exit. “I don’t know how you’ve got this idea in your head, but I’m nothing of the sort. You said we were free to leave, so please, Mr. Beckwith, honour your word!”
He flailed his head back and forth. “I can’t continue on like this. While you are trapped by too little freedom, I am trapped by too much of it. My mother could see them as well, that’s how I know. The way you looked at your mother as soon as I’d taken her will, the way you knew the effect I’d had on my servants. I need you.”
I took a step towards him. “What difference does it make if I can or can’t see these outlines? They’re useless, nothing but a constant reminder of my own impotence.”
“It isn’t at all useless!” Mr. Beckwith took hold of my mother’s shoulders and shifted her, as if she was a wax figure. “This won’t ever happen to you. It can’t ever happen to you.”
“Then you have no choice but to let me go,” I said, inching towards my mother. Devoid of his mysterious bravado, Mr. Beckwith resembled any other man, standing just a few inches taller than I and possessing a frame that carried not more than fifteen pounds extra.
Mr Beckwith closed his eyes as he took a deep breath. Then sprung them open as he exhaled, having recaptured their enigmatic glint. “Excuse me. I lost myself there. To be expected, I suppose, after a decade without so much as a taste of passion. So tell me, how do you expect to escape?”
I glanced at my still-lifeless mother, prompting a grin from Mr. Beckwith, who released her. With a quick succession of claps, he skipped back to the sofa. “The first conundrum. First of many! Good on you. You’re clever. Very clever. I love it.”
The moment he sat down, I grabbed my mother’s hand before shoving through the doors. The futility of my flight grew apparent the moment I dashed into the dining hall, as my mother’s unyielding weight limited our sprint to more of a brisk stroll.
Mr. Beckwith’s voice reverberated from the lounge. “Oh, come now. I just called you clever. What is this silliness?”
Emboldened by emotion, I dragged my mother along. As we reached the table’s mid-point, Mr. Beckwith appeared, plodding down the opposite end with a looping stride and a pointed grin that would have been comical if not for the horrifying context.
Mr. Beckwith matched my sluggish pace with ease, all the while tossing napkins across the table at me. As I neared the staircase, a knotted napkin connected with my temple. I stumbled but maintained my footing.
A booming laugh echoed throughout the hall. “Edgar? My dear man, lock the front door.” Though no reply came, a thud of wood falling against metal came from the foyer. “Much appreciated. Now, do position that skeletal rear in front of it.”
I briefly glimpsed the open staircase, which vanished behind Mr. Beckwith as he skidded in front of it, the soles of his shoes screeching across the marble floor. I stopped at the table’s edge, gasping for air as I relinquished my mother’s hand.
My mother drew a chair and took a seat, as if our frantic race had been a mere preparation for dinner. Unleashing a booming laugh, Mr. Beckwith fetched another chair and positioned it in front of me.
He stepped aside with a bow. “Allow yourself to be dragged down by sentiment, and you will inevitably fall behind those unhinged from humanity. An unfortunate truth, but a necessary lesson, I’m afraid.”
I dragged my mother from her chair. “While such a disposition may aid a petulant child in having their every whim catered to, insanity isn’t conducive to any relationship of the sort you seek. Your priorities, like your humanity, Mr. Beckwith, are similarly unhinged from what you desire.”
His eyes softened, and his smile fell. “Simon. My name. It’s Simon. Would you say it?”
He stepped forward to block the staircase again, but I discovered new life in the hopelessness of the situation, and the momentary chance to catch my breath. Neither reason nor trickery could alter the convictions of a man so desperate, only resolve.
With my mother in tow, I charged straight at Mr. Beckwith. Before I reached him, he hopped aside. Baffled, but praying fear had got the better of him, I made to descend the steps. As I reached the first step, Mr. Beckwith shoved the small of my back.
I lost my footing and rolled down the stairs, too filled with adrenaline to register anything other than the ghastly crunches that accompanied each impact against the unforgiving marble. Both my mother and I reached the foyer in a crumpled heap.
A clap of thunder pierced the silence, thrusting me from my daze and onto my feet, but a searing pain shot up my spine as my left leg bore weight. Over my shoulder, I glimpsed Mr. Beckwith leaning on the railing atop the stairs.
“Could we please stop with this foolishness now, Miss Eleanor? Look at your poor lump of a mother.” He gestured to my mother, who lay unconscious, her arm twisted at a nausea-inducing angle. “Allow Edgar to escort you back up here, and we can have that limp tended to.”
Edgar’s gloved hand appeared on my shoulder. I swung around, meeting the gaze of the man’s dull eyes, their bordering crow’s feet a remnant of happier days. With as much pressure as I could muster, I grasped Edgar’s hand.
“If there’s any self left within you,” I said, “please let us go.”
Indiscernible voices met my ears as if cries from a distant crowd, and a strange energy emanated from Edgar. I looked up.
Faint glass barriers had formed where Edgar’s brown eyes had been. Countless iterations of Edgar himself pounded against them, their screams muffled. Almost as soon as I recognised the barriers, they started to dissolve.
The wails grew louder as the illusory obstruction faded, revealing the nuances of their respective agonies, which, once freed, unleashed years of repressed emotions from Edgar. A shout burst from his lips, so loud it shattered the towering windows on either side of the door. I stumbled back as stained glass shards showered over me.
Pale and drenched in sweat, Edgar clambered over to the door as a bolt of lightning cut through the now visible horizon. He heaved the strip of wood from its place across the doors before falling to his knees.
I turned to find that my mother had regained consciousness and knelt at the bottom of the staircase that Mr. Beckwith was racing down. Despite my newfound ability to counteract Mr. Beckwith’s control, I hesitated; the thought of returning home with her inspired only dread.
As Mr Beckwith’s footfalls echoed, I turned my back to my mother, releasing a sob as I limped towards the door.
“Edgar. Don’t you—don’t you dare let her leave.” His pleas were not heard by a man whose heart must have held nothing but contempt. I wrenched open the doors before exiting into the pouring rain. “Eleanor—you can’t do this. You’ll never escape. I’ll—I’ll spend every waking moment hunting you down.”
I staggered down the walkway at a speed far too slow to outpace the uninjured Mr. Beckwith. But with eyes shut and teeth gritted, I pushed forward, fighting the urge to scream with each excruciating step. A thump came from the doorway.
On the patio, Edgar lay on top of Mr. Beckwith, having clearly summoned the last of his strength to allow my safe passage. There was little chance my feeble thank you reached the man, but I refused to look back until I had passed the now unattended front gate.
I glimpsed the distant figures of the two men on the patio before turning and hobbling into the forest across from the estate. I continued on for what seemed like hours, but very well could have been mere minutes, before collapsing beneath a cliff’s overhang.
Despite the steady stream of tears that mingled with the rain flowing down my cheeks, I drifted off, my heart aching as badly as my wounded ankle. The unyielding darkness of the surrounding forest matched that of my soul, having grasped freedom in an act selfish enough to make Mr. Beckwith proud.
An empty soul, but a free one.