Chapter One: New York, September 1911 CHAPTER ONE NEW YORK, SEPTEMBER 1911
My mother once told me a girl’s success in this world was dependent on how well she could pretend. Right now, I am pretending I don’t want to scream.
Mr. Hues is a difficult presence to ignore as he stalks through the shop with all the grace of a drunken lion.
He arrived this morning for one of his favorite surprise inspections, but as usual, it’s less an inspection of the shop than of the seamstresses who work here.
Through stolen glances, the other girls and I take stock of one another’s work. Mary ran out of bobbin thread two minutes ago. Catherine’s tracing pencil snapped just before that.
I lose the silent game of chicken. With a resigned sigh, I rise from my desk, knowing the iron needs to be lit if I have any hope of finishing this hem.
It’s impossible to pretend I don’t notice the weight of Mr. Hues’s gaze as his eyes track me down the aisle.
“Morning.” His grin makes my skin crawl.
The smile I force feels like defeat. There’s nothing he loves more than basking in our gratitude. Never mind that it’s the thirteen of us here who do all the work and ship the profits off neatly to him at the end of every week.
Mr. Hues often tells us not to do things by halves, to dedicate ourselves fully to all that we do. When it comes to contributing to my misery, he follows his own advice.
An unexpected early fall frost fell last night, and the shop is cold. It’s difficult to make the delicate stitches Mr. Hues demands with numb hands, but the last time our supervisor, Mrs. Carrey, asked him to increase our coal budget, he laughed in her face. And Mrs. Carrey does not have a face that’s easy to laugh in.
I return to my sewing machine, weaving like a spider around desks of girls, all churning out dresses as quickly as we’re able in the cramped space. I do my best not to bump Jess’s elbow as she works next to me. The last time I did, I ended up with a straight pin stuck between my thumb and pointer finger. She said it was an accident but smiled when I started bleeding.
Mr. Hues lumbers around the dress shop, picking at dummies, running his fingers over fabrics. He stops at my workstation and picks up the stack of pattern pieces I’ve carefully laid out for a velvet coat for a rich widow, my best client. He rifles through them carelessly, as if he has any idea what he is looking at, then places them back on the corner of the desk haphazardly. A piece of the collar flutters to the floor. He pays it no mind.
It’ll take me ages to sort out what he’s just done.
His next target is Mary. He perches himself on the edge of her desk and asks her to give him a smile. His blond hair, or what is left of it, has been oiled back and combed over his head. He’s drenched himself in cologne today; it coats the back of my throat, acrid and awful.
“Well done,” he finally speaks, apparently having found our partially constructed garments to his liking. “How are my girls?”
The tone of his question implies he expects to find us overjoyed to be in the employment of such a fine man.
“Fine, thank you, Mr. Hues,” we reply, our voices all an octave too high.
He turns to Mrs. Carrey to ask about the state of business.
With a wave of her wrinkled hand, she dismisses us from sitting at attention. Though our tightly packed desks don’t offer us much distance from Mr. Hues, the reprieve from having to look at the grease trap of a man with reverence is a relief.
At least when I’m driven to eating nothing but a crusty heel of bread for dinner, I don’t have to pretend to be happy about it. At least when I miss William so badly I fear my chest will crack open with the pain of it, I’m not forced to wear a smile on my face.
I busy myself constructing the midnight-blue velvet coat, and with the soft feel of the cloth under my hands, I remind myself, as I do ten thousand times a day, how lucky I am to have this position, Mr. Hues’s visits and all.
I could be like my mother, exiled to that horrible hospital on Long Island, her mind irreparably fractured by William’s death.
Or like my school friend Rosie, working in that factory by the river, inhaling sludge, on her feet for twelve hours a day, putting the same button on the same shirt ad infinitum. And that mind-numbing exhaustion is nothing compared to some of the stories she tells me, like the one of the girl who wore her braid too long. It got snatched up by one of the machines, and she died right there on the factory floor.
Rosie told me when they unraveled her braid from the gears, they found her entire scalp still attached.
I had nightmares about it for weeks.
Or I could be like my brother, his waterlogged bones turning to rot in a grave I still can’t bring myself to visit. He arguably got the worst deal of us all, though I’m not sure he’d agree. It is a shame he’s not here to ask.
I keep waiting for the pain of his death to subside, but it hasn’t yet stopped feeling like a punch to the gut fifty times a day.
He’d probably tell me to stop being so dramatic.
Truly, I’m lucky to be employed as a dressmaker in a small shop, even luckier that Mrs. Carrey let me move in with the other girls upstairs after my mother was sent off to the asylum. Positions like this are getting rarer by the minute.
Every day they build new smokestacks, and every day another shop like this one closes.
I take my time on the wealthy widow’s coat, hoping the steady clicking of the sewing machine will drown out all the other noises in my head.
I’m sewing on the buttons that will trail all along the front of the coat when the soft chime of the door swinging open startles me. It’s only a delivery boy dropping a package of new needles on Mrs. Carrey’s desk, but I’m surprised to see the sky awash with the pale purple of twilight. The velvet coat’s owner is expecting a delivery tomorrow morning, and I still have ten buttons, both cuffs, and the trimming left.
The shop needs at least three more seamstresses, but Mr. Hues is convinced our inability to keep up with orders is an issue of work ethic, not staffing.
The Thompson sisters ordered those ugly matching sailor dresses yesterday, putting me behind, and Mr. Hues’s visit today only made things worse.
Dark shadows of late evening stretch across the room, and one by one the girls filter upstairs to the apartment where most of us live, until only Mrs. Carrey and I remain. She kindly lights three kerosene lamps and tells me not to be up too late.
Being in the shop alone at night is a particular kind of misery. Under the cover of darkness, the mice skitter across the floor, and the temperature drops so low I’m soon shivering beneath my shawl.
The other girls are giggling in the apartment upstairs. We don’t laugh often, so I imagine they’re sharing a joke at Mr. Hues’s expense.
My needle flies across the fabric. I’m working as quickly as I can, snipping the thread of the eighth button, when a key jangling in the front lock startles me.
The bell attached to the front door chimes. Here in the dark, it sounds so different.
Stomach heavy with dread, I force myself to look up from the coat, and my worst fears are confirmed.
He charges into the shop like a bull, tripping over his own shoes as he crosses the threshold.
His face is flushed, despite the cool evening air, and his brown tweed coat is buttoned wrong.
With sweaty hands, he shuffles through the till, grabbing loose bills and shoving them into his pockets.
I freeze. Perhaps I’ll get lucky and he won’t notice I’m here.
I once read that dogs can smell fear. I think men must be able to as well, because his gaze snaps up, meets mine.
I can lie to myself, but deep down I know the truth is I’ve never been lucky.
At the sight of me he sucks his teeth and smiles a slippery awful thing. “It’s you.”
“Just leaving, sir,” I shove stray pattern pieces into the drawer of my sewing desk to avoid meeting his watery gaze.
A grimace cuts across his face. “No”—he chews on the word—“I don’t think you are.” The turn of his mouth and slime in his gaze make it clear what he means to do.
Terror shoots through me, fuzzy and nauseating. I pause, and then I calculate.
To get to the front door, I’d have to walk past him, within arm’s reach, and the dark street outside is likely abandoned at this hour. The back door, the one that leads to the apartment upstairs, is closer but will be locked this late. The key is in the pocket of my apron, but I can already picture my shaking hands fumbling with it until it falls to the floor.
The kerosene lamps flicker, casting the shop in a sickly orange glow.
My lungs are in a vise.
Make a decision.
I pick one foot off the floor, then hurl myself in the direction of the door that leads to the back staircase. I’m aware of nothing save for Mr. Hues and my own heart beating in my chest, counting down like the second hand on a poorly oiled clock.
I’m almost there, fingers outstretched, reaching for the handle, when a hand grabs a fistful of my collar and yanks me back. I sputter as the fabric chokes me.
“Where are you going?” Mr. Hues slurs, words as grease coated as the rest of him. “The night is young.”
A cold embrace seizes my pounding heart, and the tips of my fingers go numb right along with it. I stumble back and turn to face him, but I don’t get far with my blouse still fisted in his hand.
“Please, sir,” I whisper. My voice trembles. I hate myself for it.
His only reply is to shove me roughly against the wall. My head makes a terrible cracking noise as it collides with the bricks.
He pins me, one hand gripping at my shoulder, the other splayed across my hip.
I can’t summon my voice to scream.
This close, the sour smell of whiskey on his breath is overpowering. His face is red and blotchy, eyes hooded and swollen. A bead of sweat from his face drops wet and hot onto my neck.
I throw my arms up to unsteady him, but he’s too large.
The metal boning of my corset bites into my ribs. My lungs scream for air.
“Don’t you like me, Mary?” he says with a slippery grin, dragging his hand away from my shoulder to pin my neck against the wall with his forearm. He presses down hard.
I’m not Mary, I’m Frances, I want to scream at him, but it doesn’t matter to him who I am, who any of us are. If he saw me as a person, he wouldn’t be doing this.
Pressure from his massive arm makes breathing impossible. I gape, like a fish pulled from water. At first I feel nothing, then there is the awful burning as I begin to suffocate.
I attempt a gasp and he smiles.
If I don’t die tonight, I know the wild-laughter joy in his eyes at my pain will haunt me for as long as I live.
Bright spots flash in my field of vision. The edges of the room blur in and out of focus.
He inches closer.
I close my eyes.
Is this what my brother felt?
Nothingness licks at the edge of everything. Then, beneath the icy dread, there is something once more. A thrumming starts in my stomach. Blooming down my fingertips.
A thought slips through the haze of panic, like morning sun dispelling fog on a harbor: Death is warmer than I thought it would be.
The feeling consumes me, illuminates all the shadowy parts of my being, until there is nothing left but it and me.
I choke in a shallow breath, all I’m able with his arm crushed against my windpipe.
I am not afraid.
I refuse to be afraid.
A low whistling, the sound of an object flying through the air, snaps me out of my trance.
With my eyes still shut tight, I hear a squelching thump and flinch as warm liquid splashes my face.
Free from the weight of his forearm, I heave in a desperate gasp. The relief is immediate.
My eyes shoot open just in time to see Mr. Hues tumble to the floor with a mighty thud, my sewing shears buried almost to the hilt in the meaty left side of his neck.
Wine-red blood spills from the wound, blooms across his white shirt, and drips down into the seams of the worn wood floors.
He makes a gurgling noise, spasms, then goes completely still.
Where there was once a person, there is now only a body. A body with my sewing shears buried five inches deep in its neck.
But the door is firmly closed, the windows latched. There is no mystery savior, only me and the body and the shears.
A cold certainty fills me. I did this. Somehow I did this.
My mind goes dark. My knees go weak.
The last thing I think before falling to the floor is Please, God, don’t let me land in his blood.
Again luck abandons me.
I come to, moments later, hands and arms sticky and red. Mr. Hues lies beside me, his beady eyes still open, his face arranged in an almost comical expression of shock.
The blood has seeped into the sleeve of my blouse, marring the white with a gash of rusty red.
Silver moonlight streams in through the windows, illuminating Mr. Hues’s waxy hand, lying inches from mine.
I lie on the floor for a moment, prying my eyes from Mr. Hues’s lifeless form to the ceiling. The apartment above is still; the encounter with Mr. Hues has apparently not woken the others. But why would it have? The screaming existed only within my own head. My vocal cords, paralyzed by fear or crushed by Mr. Hues, managed only the rasping beginnings of a cry.
I swallow down a sob. If the other girls wake, they’ll find me here next to Mr. Hues, and I know what this looks like.
The only breaths I manage are frantic and shallow. I rise to my feet, which is difficult with every muscle in my body shaking, and find the soles of my boots are sticky with his blood.
Before I can stop it, my stomach rolls and I vomit all over the floor.
It mingles with the smell of sewing machine oil and something dying.
I heave again, but there’s nothing left to come up.
I should probably make some attempt to get rid of the body, find an alley to drag him down, but even if I were strong enough to move him on my own, the idea of touching him is so revolting, I don’t even want to try.
I cross the shop and sink down into the hard, wooden chair behind my sewing machine.
The blue velvet coat is still there, pristine and untouched. How anything in the world could be unmarred by the events of the last five minutes, I have no idea. It feels as if everything should be as different, should be as ruined as I feel.
I scrub a hand down my damp cheek. My palm comes away red. Blood, then, not tears.
Staring down at the coat, I make a plan. One step at a time, Frances, my brother’s voice echoes in my head.
Step one: I will finish the coat. If it is incomplete in the morning, I will be fired, and everyone will know that something forced me to stop working. The body in the middle of the floor will make it fairly clear what that something was.
Step two: I will hide my bloodstained clothes and dispose of them in the morning. I can easily throw them away while out on delivery.
Step three: I will never tell anyone. I will never think of this ever again.
I reach to the right side of my Singer where my shears usually lie, but my fingers brush only empty space.
I steal Jess’s instead. Her desk sits so close to mine, I can open her drawer without rising from my chair.
Their cool metallic weight makes me feel a little sick.
Again I hear William. You can do this. You have to do this.
I wipe my bloody hands on my dark skirt and get to work. I’m shaking badly enough that holding a needle is difficult, but I make do. It doesn’t take long to finish the buttons and the hem.
Mr. Hues’s form on the other side of the room is difficult to ignore. No matter how hard I try not to, every time I look up, my eyes snap to where his body lies, dark and solid, and very, very still.
My mouth tastes like bile, and it hurts a little each time I inhale. The pain is the only reason I believe any of this is real.
At the back table, I wrap the coat in tissue paper and then unbutton my own blouse. Blood is splattered across the neck and down the left sleeve. I have no chance of removing the stain on laundry day without the other girls seeing, so I fold it carefully and slip it into the box with the coat. I wrap the evidence neatly with a thick satin bow, and place it on the front desk, ready for delivery.
My corset is also marred with a coin-sized splotch of blood right above my heart, but another would cost at least a week’s wages, so it’ll have to stay. It’s easier to hide, at least.
I have no time to mourn my ruined clothing or a time when I didn’t know what a body sounded like when it hit the floor.
I swing the door to the dark street wide open and toss the cash box out onto the empty sidewalk, knowing it will be gone by morning. I don’t know how to stage a crime scene, but I hope this looks something like a robbery gone wrong.
I’m wearing nothing but my corset, and the night air sends a shiver that reaches straight through my rib cage to my still- pounding heart.
Mr. Hues’s body is splayed out near the base of the staircase. I close my eyes, grit my teeth, and summon a final act of determination to step over it.
If I were a braver person with a stronger stomach and steady hands, I would remove the shears from his neck. But I am not.
I reach into the pocket of my apron, pull out the key, and unlock the door. It doesn’t open all the way, what with Mr. Hues’s torso in the way, but I pry it open wide enough to shimmy through the gap. One step up the staircase, I turn for a last glance at his glassy, open eyes. The same eyes that roved over me so often in life are now unseeing.
My breathing is jagged, still too shallow and fast as I walk up the narrow staircase to our dark apartment. Blessedly, the other girls are asleep in their iron bedsteads, breathing deeply, soft and quiet.
With a wet cloth from the washbasin in the corner of the room, I wipe the dried blood off my face. I’m not sure if I get all of it—the cloth keeps coming away from my face red—but I can’t stand to look at it anymore. In an apartment full of girls, no one will give a bloodstained rag a second glance. I throw it in my laundry pile and hope I’ve done enough.
I wish I were back in our old apartment on Hester Street, that William was in his bed, and I could wake him and ask what to do. His absence usually feels like a hole in my heart: ever present, but something I can function around. Tonight it feels like a gaping wound: stinging and ugly and desperately urgent.
Most days I try to dam my grief, fearing the dark unknown of its depths, but tonight I let it drown me, hoping if I do, I won’t think about Mr. Hues’s hands on my waist, or his dead eyes, or the way my scissors flew across the room as if by magic.
I sink and sink and sink into nothing but blackness.
I do not dream. And for that I am grateful.