BREAKING NEWS! The current draft of Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors is finished!
If you are interested in being a beta-reader, contact me! (Patrons will be given preference.)
IN THIS EPISODE: … Opal tries to put her past heartbreak behind her and see what the future holds…
Welcome to another chapter of Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors! By pledging, you support the stories and help determine what I’ll write next. Can you spare a buck or two to keep the monsters marauding? Please join my patrons today!
CHAPTER 25 – Separated by Circumstance
Opal Cushing – 1951 Fisher St.
The Next Morning
The early morning sun fell warm on Opal’s face, chasing away the last vestiges of sleep, and any nightmares that might have lurked in the darkness.
She’d been doing better since the night of her outburst in Hyde Park. And the boys had been so pleasant and attentive in the days that followed. Each day, at least one of them would turn up with some small present for her—though actually Frank turned up most days.
The morning after the incident he’d arrived with flowers. Then Naveen had brought chocolates, Charlie her favorite tea (lemon blossom), and Barry a book on birdwatching. (She wasn’t much of a birder—nor was he—but it was the thought that mattered.)
At least he didn’t bring some sappy romance novel, Opal thought. Or anything that might remind me of Paul.
Annoyingly, he was still working at the waxworks.
Even more annoying, he still seemed to want to reconcile with her—but neither she nor her sister were giving him the slightest chance.
It still made Opal’s heart ache (a little) to turn her back on him, but what else could she do? He’d proven beyond any doubt that—no matter how troubled his past or what curse he believed himself to be under—he couldn’t be trusted.
And even if she’d wanted to make up with him now, even when Topaz didn’t pop up to divert him, Victoria seemed to have developed some sixth sense concerning the handyman, too. Any time Paul seemed about to talk to Opal, Madame Duprix would swoop in between them like some great velvet-clad bat and spirit Paul away to do some task or errand.
Victoria isn’t intercepting him for my sake. Opal felt sure of that. Did Vincent’s wife have designs of her own on Paul?
The furtive way he glanced at the older woman seemed to indicate she did, and that he knew about it. He looked almost… guilty when Opal saw them together.
Opal knew she shouldn’t care.
What did it matter to her, even if the pair were having a torrid affair? Opal squirmed at just the thought of it, but—even if that were real (and it wasn’t)—that was really between the two of them and Victoria’s husband. It wasn’t any of Opal’s business.
She did care.
Despite everything that had happened, part of her still longed for Paul—for the feeling of his strong arms around her, for the taste of his kisses…
Why can’t I just let him go? she wondered as the sunshine through the bedroom window turned the insides of her eyelids a rosy pink.
Opal opened her eyes and gazed out the window. Looking at the blue summer sky, dappled with cottony white clouds, it was hard to believe there could be anything wrong with the world.
Today, I will let him go, Opal told herself. Today, even if I see him, I will not think about him at all. He’s merely another hired hand to me.
Firm in her resolution, she sat up, and only then noticed that the bed beside her lay empty.
Topaz sometimes rose first, but usually, when she did, she made breakfast. Opal smelled no fresh aromas from the nearby kitchen, nor did she hear her twin bustling around the flat, nor could she sense Topaz nearby.
Where could she be?
Had one of the boys dropped by for an early morning walk? And, if so, why hadn’t Topaz roused her?
The sisters had been out with their admiring foursome again last night. They’d stayed at a West End dance club until well past one, before Barry drove all them home. Now that Opal of it, she noticed that her legs still ached from cutting the rug all night long.
But it was a healthy ache. The dancing had done her good, gotten her mind off of… other things—things she remained determined not to think about on this new, glorious morning.
But where was Topaz?
Opal rose, threw on a dressing gown, and went to look.
She found neither her sister in the kitchen nor a note on the table, which indicated that Topaz had probably not gone out. (Her twin was very good about leaving messages if she ran an errand or something.) That meant Topaz was probably down in the Chamber of Horrors—though it was exceedingly early to be getting a start on the day.
Opal considered taking the servants’ stairs down to the attraction, but that would have sent her past the handyman’s room, and she didn’t want that. Besides, that back entrance to the exhibits was always locked, now, and the Cushings’ key was missing from its hook (further evidence of her sister’s likely whereabouts). Not wanting to dig out the emergency key (or risk an unpleasant encounter on the back stairs), Opal took the front stairway down.
As she passed the second floor, a disquieting thought occurred to her. What if her sister was with him? What if the two of them were really carrying on in secret, the way Opal and he had been?
No! Don’t think like that! Opal chided herself. There was no evidence that her twin was having an affair with anyone, never mind Opal’s ex-lover.
Why do I think crazy jealous thoughts like that? I am over him! I am! I will not think about him even a smidge!
She was still telling herself that when she reached the front door to the Chamber of Horrors—unlocked, as she had expected.
“Topaz?” she called quietly as she opened the door and stepped inside.
Someone—not her sister—was moving around inside the chamber.
Could Paul have snuck down here again to rob them? She and her twin had been very careful about locking all the entrances at night, including the newly cleared back stairway. She knew that the Duprixes had been just as vigilant.
Yet, a tall figure was moving around in the shadows to her left, near the mummy exhibit.
Taking a deep breath, Opal moved to the main panel and flicked on the light switch for that area.
“Oh!” the figure next to the mummy cases cried, and dropped something to the floor with a clatter.
“Vincent?” Opal said. She went down the short flight of stairs and across the exhibit floor to where the sculptor was standing, or rather, stooping to pick up what he’d dropped, which appeared to be some kind of paintbrush. “What are you doing here?”
“Me?” Vincent replied. “Just a bit of tidying up.” He was standing in front of the mummy case of Bastiti’s bodyguard, and looked very bedraggled—as though he might not have slept. And did he smell vaguely of smoke… or was that some ancient Egyptian embalming spice Opal was mistaking?
Vincent recovered his composure and grinned his wolfish grin at her. “You startled me, my dear.”
“I startled you?” she said.
“Well, yes… I suppose we rather startled each other. You see, I came down here to derive some inspiration for my next sculpture of Bastiti. And, while doing so, I noticed things were a bit… untidy. So, I thought I’d spruce up a little before returning to my studio.”
As Opal looked past him, she noticed that the mummy of Nekure did look quite a bit cleaner than she remembered it being. “You really shouldn’t touch the exhibits, you know,” she cautioned. “These mummies are very old.”
“Oh, I realize that,” Vincent said, “but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t look their best—does it? We want them to be extra-presentable for the public, after all, don’t we?”
“I suppose,” Opal conceded. He didn’t seem to have done any harm, but she couldn’t help feeling that he wasn’t telling her the whole story.
“Don’t worry,” he continued. “I was very careful—used a small painter’s brush to dust with, as you may have noticed.”
“I did,” she said. But she sensed he was still withholding something from her. Opal frowned, not sure whether she wanted to know what was really on Vincent’s mind, or if she was better off not knowing.
Not, she decided. So she asked: “Have you seen my sister?”
“Topaz? This morning? No. Why do you ask?”
“She’s not in our flat,” Opal replied. “I thought she might be in the exhibits somewhere.”
“I suppose she could be,” Vincent said. “I haven’t been down here very long.” He was sweating a bit now… But why? If Topaz had been here, she would have had a much clearer sense of his motives.
Vincent wiped his hands on his smock, having tucked his brush into one of the pockets. “Well, I’ll leave you to it,” he said. “Must get back to work. I’m sure your sister will turn up, but let me know if you need any help locating her.”
“Thanks,” said Opal. “I will.”
With a courteous nod, he hopped up the stairs into the waxworks and disappeared from view.
Curiouser and curiouser.
What she’d said to Topaz the other night about them leading “odd” lives came back to Opal then, and that gave her an idea of where her sister might be.
Sure enough, she found Topaz sleeping in their father’s old, overstuffed chair in the deepest recesses of the chamber, near the Ice Man exhibit.
Did she sleepwalk here, or…?
On the floor by Topaz’s right hand lay an open book, Paradise Lost.
She came down deliberately. That’s a relief. Topaz had gone through a bout of sleepwalking when the twins were younger—often associated with bad dreams—but her nocturnal wanderings had all but vanished after puberty.
Clearly, Topaz must have come to the chamber to read to her “friend,” after the twins had returned home from dancing last night. Not surprising that Vincent hadn’t noticed Topaz here, hidden in the shadows near the back of the exhibits.
The Ice Man stared at the sisters balefully from his frozen coffin. He looked like some dreadful ogre dressed in tattered Regency Era clothing.
Opal shook her head at her twin and sighed. “What a pair we make!” she said softly.
She thought about rousing her sister, but decided not to. It was still early, and the chamber wouldn’t open for a few more hours; better to let Topaz sleep.
As Opal gazed lovingly at her sibling, Topaz shuddered slightly.
She’s cold, Opal realized. Located mostly below street level, the chamber often remained chilly, even in the summer, and being next to the refrigerated Ice Man exhibit wasn’t helping this particular spot to warm up at all.
I’ll get her a blanket, Opal thought, and headed back upstairs.
Once in their room, she quickly changed into a skirt and blouse—In case I run into that lech Vincent again, she told herself—and then pulled the top blanket off the bed she and Topaz shared.
As she did, something flew off the nightstand and hit the floor with a dull thud.
“Our tarot deck,” Opal observed, frowning. She didn’t remember leaving it out last night—though maybe Topaz had?
With a shrug, she retrieved the box of cards from the floor and was about to put it back in the nightstand drawer, where it belonged… But then she paused.
It had been a while since she’d turned the cards. In the past, during difficult times, she’d used the tarot to help focus her mind.
What could it hurt?
Opal stuffed the deck into the pocket of the peasant skirt she’d thrown on, gathered the blanket into her arms, and hurried back downstairs.
She practically ran into Paul on her way down, as he emerged onto the second-floor landing from the servants’ door.
“I’m sorry,” he said sheepishly, avoiding her gaze.
“Will you please get out of my way?” she demanded.
He stepped back against the wall. “I’m sorry,” he said again, still not looking at her.
“You should be,” she said, sticking her nose in the air and starting down once more.
But her foot tangled in the hem of her blanket, which had worked itself loose in the near-collision.
Opal tripped… pitched forward…
Just before she could fall headlong down the steep stairway, strong hands grabbed her from behind.
Without a single word, Paul pulled her back onto her feet.
“I…” Opal began, flustered. “Thank you.”
He nodded earnestly. “You’re welcome.”
“But it wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t charging out onto the stairs like—” Only then did Opal notice the battered valise he’d set down on the landing.
“I don’t think I was charging, exactly,” Paul said. “More of a slow meander.”
Despite her best intentions, she couldn’t help but feel for him. He as so likable—even if he was a cad.
She gritted her teeth and narrowed her eyes, trying to remember her anger, despite his natural charm. “Are you leaving?”
He shrugged and picked up his suitcase. “I thought it would be for the best.”
Part of her ached at the thought, but Opal managed to say, “Good!” She stepped back on the landing, out of his way. “Go!”
He looked at her, his eyes forlorn. For a moment, it seemed as though he might say something…
In her mind, Opal imagined the apologies he would pour out, and how she would reject them. Just talking to him was more than he deserved.
…But Paul merely clamped his mouth shut. He turned toward the front door and trundled down the stairs.
She straightened the blanket in her arms, so she wouldn’t trip again, and followed.
“Is someone going somewhere?” asked an imperious voice from above.
Paul looked back to the second-floor landing, and Opal did, too.
There stood Victoria in a silken burgundy nightgown, gazing down on them, hands propped on her hips.
She looked ten years younger than she had when Opal had last seen her. The morning light must agree with her, Opal thought. Though Madame Duprix did look rather pale.
“I was just…” Paul began.
“Not planning on leaving, I hope,” Victoria said. “We still have so much to do. And need I remind you, Mr. Shaw, you owe me—owe us, my husband and I. We’ve been very generous with you.”
Victoria’s eyes narrowed. “And I expect to get my money’s worth.”
Paul merely nodded.
“I suspected something like this might happen, with you skulking about all the time,” Victoria continued. “That’s why I locked the servants’ exit. We don’t want you… sneaking off with anything that doesn’t belong to you—or with your debts unpaid. Now put that bag back into your room, and let’s get to work.”
Reluctantly, Paul turned and ascended the stairs once more.
Opal pressed herself against the wall to let him pass. Despite her best efforts, his strong body brushed up against hers. And despite her intentions, her feelings for him welled up inside once more.
He glanced at her, his eyes sad, almost pleading.
“It’s no use,” he whispered. “There’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry I hurt you. I never meant to.” He kept climbing, and soon vanished into the doorway leading to the servants’ quarters.
Victoria stared imperiously at Opal for a moment, and then, with a sweep of her skirts, turned and vanished back into the apartments she shared with her husband.
Opal sighed with relief, but her head spun with emotions.
What had just happened? Was Paul acting like a whipped dog because of what he’d done to her, or for some other reason? And was his subservience to Victoria part of that, or something else?
And why did Opal still feel anything for this man who’d betrayed her—betrayed her whole family?
She couldn’t figure it out.
She wished she were Topaz, so she could read his emotions better, so she’d know what…
She’d gotten so wrapped up in her own problems (again), that she’d completely forgotten about her twin—even though she was standing in the middle of a stairway with a blanket for her sister clutched in her arms.
Being careful not to trip again, she hurried downstairs to the Chamber of Horrors, where she found Topaz still dozing in their father’s chair, next to the Ice Man exhibit.
Gently, so as not to wake her, Opal laid the blanket across her sister.
Then she crept back into a shadowy corner of the chamber and sat down to think.
A ray of early morning sunshine crept through the narrow street-level windows and made one of the exhibits to Opal’s left glitter.
The scales of the isda-asawa—the Filipino fish-wife.
Even the exhibits reminded Opal of Paul now!
What was happening with her life? How could she make any sense from these conflicting emotions welling up inside her? Why couldn’t things be simpler?
She buried her head in her hands and leaned forward so that her elbows rested against her thighs, feeling she might go mad (despite the best efforts of her sister, Frank, and her other true friends).
Her right elbow touched on something hard in the pocket of her peasant skirt.
Maybe the tarot could give her some focus, tell her how to move forward.
She retrieved the deck from her pocket, placed the box on the small table beside her, and held the cards in her hands. The pasteboard plaques felt unaccountably cold.
Should I do this? she wondered.
Topaz would warn against it. It was tricky, maybe even dangerous, to cast the tarot for yourself—even more so with just a short, five-card spread. But Opal didn’t have time, or patience, for a longer reading.
She glanced across the chamber to where her sister lay sleeping, but could only see the corner of Topaz’ blanket poking out between all the intervening exhibits.
Opal didn’t want to wait for her sister to wake and help with the forecast.
She shuffled the deck while concentrating on her question and making a silent plea:
What does life hold in store for me? I wish I knew what to do next!
She cut the cards in the prescribed manner and then laid out five in a row.
She took a deep breath and turned up the first card on the right—her past:
The Lovers, inverted.
Didn’t that just figure. Her love life certainly felt upside-down right now, and the meaning of the card couldn’t be clearer:
Get hold of your emotions or trouble may follow with family and friends. Make the wrong choices, and you will suffer.
Certainly, all of that seemed to apply to her relationship with Paul. She should have been more cautious. But now… It was like closing the barn door when the horse had already fled.
The second card, still her past, but more recent…
The Ace of Wands, inverted. Your aspirations don’t work out. What should bring happiness, doesn’t.
Again, the eerie reflection of her life and her hopes for her relationship with Paul. She’d fallen so hard for him that she thought he might be “the one.” As Topaz had warned, there was more to him than it had first seemed—hidden secrets and darkness… The darkness that led to betrayal… Darkness that hung over him still.
The darkness of a thief and con man.
But all that was behind her now, or so Opal wanted to believe. The future still lay ahead, and that’s what she was looking for—hints to tell her what was to come and guide her forward.
The next card, the middle one, would illuminate her present situation…
The Fool, inverted.\
God! I certainly feel like a fool!
This upside-down illustration from the Major Arcana was clearly not just an admonition, but also a warning: You’re being weak willed, and that will only lead you down the wrong path. By being selfish and self-centered, you will only add more anguish and suffering to what you’re going through.
It was almost as if the cards were slapping her in the face, trying to wake her up.
Maybe that’s what I need, another good, hard wakeup call.
But she also needed guidance going forward, so she turned up the next card to the left, the first card that would indicate her future, the future close at hand.
The High Priestess, inverted.
Will any of the cards in this fortune be right-side up?
Yes, her entire life did seem upside-down right now, including her fortune.
Because this was the fourth inverted card, she also knew that the wish she’d made had little chance of becoming reality. She wasn’t sure she really believed in that old saw about your wish coming true if more tarot cards were upright than inverted, but… (Certainly, Topaz, who believed in the power of the tarot generally, scoffed at the wish thing as “superstitious twaddle.”)
Opal tamped town her irrational disappointment about her wish not coming true—Did you really think the cards would tell you what to do next?—and concentrated on the meaning of the newest card in the fortune before her.
The High Priestess was a card of hidden influences, of workings behind the scenes that you couldn’t know about. Inverted, it, too, held a warning: Don’t take things at face value.
That’s exactly what she’d done with Paul, focusing on his charm and handsomeness, and missing the damaged man beneath the façade.
This was a reminder not to fall into the same trap twice.
The High Priestess also made Opal think of Victoria, and maybe her husband as well.
Schemers, both of them!
Only one more card in the reading to go—the final card of her future. Would it, too, be inverted?
Pulse racing, Opal flipped it.
The Tower… Disaster!
The only card right-side up, and it was the worst possible one to get—the same one that had come up months ago, when the twins had been forecasting for their father. Then, though, it had been a presage of things that needed to be guarded against, things that might come.
And while this contained a warning, too, it was a much stronger one:
If I continue down my current selfish path, I will lose everything I hold dear.
She had to give up on Paul, fully and completely, just as she’d decided when she’d woken this morning—before their brief encounter on the stairs. If she didn’t…
“Good morning,” Topaz said with a yawn.
Opal nearly jumped out of her skin. Her sudden movement overturned the small table and spilled the cards of her distressing fortune onto the floor.
“Oh! I’m sorry!” her sister said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. What’s up?”
“N-nothing,” Opal replied. “I was just fooling around.”
Topaz rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Even dozing in a chair all night, she still looked beautiful, her blonde locks falling carelessly around her shoulders. Opal felt a twinge of envy—not for the first time.
“What did the cards say?” Topaz asked. “Who were you casting for?”
“They didn’t say anything,” Opal lied. “I just started. I was… I was reading for myself.”
Topaz hugged her and kissed her cheek. “Silly twin!” she admonished playfully. “You know that never works well.”
“Yes,” Opal agreed quietly. “Yes. I guess you’re right.”
TO BE CONTINUED…!
Extra-special thanks to these wonderful patrons at Credit Creature level and above:
Shawn P. Conlin – Wolvesbane Academy
David Lars Chamberlain
Rich Chamberlain – Monster Movie Kid
Amy Frushour Kelly – AFK Photography
…And all the rest of you, too! Keep sharing the story links!