Ah, so you have come. It is in your best interest that I warn you of the world you are about to enter – about the story that I am to tell. But if you are brave enough, if you are curious enough, if you are daring enough, … come. To be quite honest, I have been waiting for you. This tale has lived on the tip of my tongue, pressed between the secrecy of my lips. But I do believe you are the right person. After all, you are standing on the edge of your reality, and need just a slight push to tip into another. So, my darlings, -my dearest readers – I would like to welcome you into my story
. . . into the world of the Top Hat Society.
Chapter I: Dangerous Dreams
Dreams are such dangerous things. Children would be wise to disregard them. Forgetting dreams, after all, is a talent and a very handy one at that. For dreams only serve to unearth feelings and troubles that we long wished to have left behind. Yet, pity for those who must bear the true weight of them, forced to remember – people like Lucy O’Rourke.
The nightmare crept in on a cold November night, just moments before dawn’s attempt to stretch through the fog of Lynd’n. It was a quite typical evening, especially as winter began to settle between the bones of alleys. There were still a few lost souls wrapped in heavy cloaks, wandering along the newly paved street to wave down the few hansom cabs still waltzing their lonesome trot. Various Schkotsland’s Guards casually stepped along the walkways by closed shops and sleeping flats. The little light that did dare to illuminate came from the cornerstone gas posts, the old Cathedral Bridge spread across the Times River, and the ever-looming Clock Tower.
Calm blanketed over each reaching building and resting flat. Everyone was relaxed. Everyone was comfortable. It was a perfect winter evening, so it was only natural that her nightmare would return. It always did when Lucy dared to turn her back.
Nestled between Cathedral’s Bridge and the Clock Tower came a chilling scream from Pinacerney Circus. It faded as quickly as it arrived and left the Guards quite startled.
Yet, in the small attic of Flat 937, above O’Rourke’s Needle, Lucy clutched her feathered pillow tightly against her own mouth to restrain the rest of the noise that desperately wanted to escape. Her wide amber eyes began to focus on the soft pastel covers as her mind twisted back into the memory of her dream.
She was in the woods again. The same woods she had run into when her mother told her the awful news. Amongst the dark trees and choking mist, she could hear the distant voice of her brother, Sebastian. Her heart raced as she realized his voice was even quieter than she had remembered. Was it possible…could she be forgetting? Lucy would call back, desperately seeking him. Her long white sleeping gown would catch along the raised roots as her pale hands pushed away brambles and hanging branches. That was when the forest would give a small shutter, chilling her bones.
She knew what was to come. It happened every time. Once, Lucy tried to restrain from turning around, but the man would only wait for her in silent amusement. After all, this would only end when she forced herself to look over at the tall, looming man in flawless black gentlemen’s attire. His head would be tipped ever so slightly towards the brim of his top hat, silhouetting his features. In his hand would be the pale porcelain mask , a haunting, featureless visage. Lucy could only ever make out was the large Cheshire-cat grin flashing against his shadow. She would call to Sebastian again, tears in her eyes. But she knew he was gone. Then she would begin to scream and stumble backwards as the man swooped down onto her before waking.
Sweat collected on Lucy’s pale skin as she finally allowed herself to relax her grip.
“Not again,” she muttered under her breath before running a hand through her short red curls. Lucy carefully poised her ear towards the door to listen for any movements from downstairs. Nothing stirred.
She sighed, squinting at the clock on her nightstand. It teased her with the ticking face of a quarter to five.
Groaning, Lucy sat up from her bed and turned her feet to the floor. She knew all too well that it would do her little good to try to return to sleep. She would either twist and turn in a restless fit or stare out the window until the sun finally began to peak out.
Lucy crept around the attic, her footfalls unconsciously avoiding those squeaky floorboards she had grown to know. She eyed her small vanity situated by the window and her humble dresser that sat against the opposite corner. Next to it leaned a small bookshelf and an old, weathered desk with an oil lamp. Her abode was rather plain, but that was the way she liked it.
As she walked over to the mirror and lit a nearby candle, her eyes unconsciously moved to the picture frame. The photograph was of two children mischievously dipping their buttoned boots into the water. Lucy couldn’t stop her bittersweet smile as she looked at the boy with dark hair. His eyes were dancing; his arm looped into the smaller girl’s. Lucy grew sober as she looked to her younger self; the memory of the dream flashed in her mind. Her hair was much longer then, held back into two wavy pigtails, which she remembered the boys loved to tug. Her own bright eyes shone with excitement – pure happiness. That was the perfect day. Her mother had wanted them to sit still for a family portrait but the sea was far too alluring for the O’Rourke twins. Her blouse had wrinkled up around her elbows and Sebastian’s trousers were already damp with sea water. It was their day at the beach – the day before he left.
Lucy scolded herself. If she continued to hold on her past, she would never mend and pain kept too close quickly brought demons that would gladly eat a young heart so full of darkness. No, Lucy would only allow her memories to prick her slightly, before she set it aside. She needed to learn to focus on what good the day would bring.
“You would do the same, Sebastian,” she whispered to the picture, nodding firmly.
She glanced up in the mirror and sighed at her mess of hair. They had somehow managed to tangle themselves together in the night. Lucy should have been used to this by now, but as she ran a comb through the knots she couldn’t stop her tongue from cursing them.
“Sometimes I wonder why I even bother!” she muttered while shaking the comb at her reflection.
A memory flashed in her mind of a man laughing as he praised her locks. His face she could hardly remember except for his tough beard and pearly smile. And though his body towered over her little frame, she wasn’t frightened. That man. . .
Lucy’s mind quickly torn away from that memory as well. Her younger brother, Adrian, didn’t need that, and certainly not her mother. After all, that was part of the reason she had cut off her curls – a dedication to abandon the memories.
Lucy quickly tidied herself using a few hairpins before taking her clothes with her to the bathroom. The rest of the house remained sleeping while Lucy took her candle and slipped down the stairs, passing the other four bedrooms and moving silently the washroom on the ground floor. The most recent addition to the home was still much cooler with it much farther from the chimney. Lucy carefully set her candle on a nearby table and her clothes on the wicker chair. As silently as she could, she removed her white gown stepped into the bath. As the lukewarm water hit her back from the tap head, she stifled a cry of drowsy protest. Most of the hot water she tried to save for her mother and brother. It didn’t hurt that the rinse often snapped the last bit of sleep from her body. Her mind began to disappear into a world of her own as Lucy thought about the youngest O’Rourke.
Adrian was three years Lucy’s junior, but nonetheless tried desperately be a protective older brother. It was amusing, but now Lucy was struggling with the idea that Adrian would be finishing school this year. It frightened her to think about her thirteen-year old brother as anything but a boy.
Lucy splashed her face, hoping to wipe away that idea as well. Time, there was still time to think on such things.
In a matter of minutes, Lucy had properly scrubbed away the nightmares and began warming her skin with her stiff cotton towel. Her eyes studied the clothes she had thrown over the chair. The bland grey button-up was in need of some repairs; her loose skirts and long apron could have also used a stitch or two and her petticoat was also looking rather worse for wear, but it would do for today. Lucy quickly shrugged on the clothing and straightened out the last pieces of her hair, tying a black ribbon along the top.
“Might as well start breakfast,” she told herself before teetering to the stairs, trying to be as silent as the mice boarders.
However, when she arrived at the kitchen, she found her mother already at the table, looking over tea-stained letters.
“Mom?” questioned Lucy. “Why are you up so early?”
“Oh darling,” her mother’s green eyes quickly looked up, startled. “I didn’t hear you get up. I suppose I couldn’t sleep,” Stacy O’Rourke tidied her space and flashed her daughter a warming smile, her cheeks dimpling. She bundled up the letters with nearby twine and adjusted her own long scarlet locks.
Lucy couldn’t help but smile back. She peaked at the letters written in eerily familiar slanted cursive.
“Just some old letters,” her mother explained, standing up and brushing aside some soot she had collected.
“From who?” Lucy tried to lean forward to peek at the name.
“No one, darling,” she quickly pressed them to her chest. “No one.”
Lucy watched her mother curiously, before it clicked. “Oh, him. . .” she drew her eyes away from her mother and stared out the small kitchen windows that lined the wall.
The memory of a bearded man returned like an unwelcome page catching a breeze. He had smelt of faint burnt wood and tobacco. And his laugh, she remembered, was low and dark. Lucy narrowed her eyes and pressed the thought away as quickly as it had come.
Stacy turned and got up from her chair. “I’m sorry, dear. I’m going to go get your brother up. Would you get the bread out?”
“It’s okay, Mum. Let him sleep a little longer. Why don’t you go settle down in the drawing room for a bit?” The last half of Lucy’s words ticked off her tongue with a hint of wavering.
“Oh, hush now! Don’t you worry about me, my Lulu. I think it is time we all got up and moving for the day,” she winked and sauntered gracefully out the room.
Lucy sighed. Perhaps it was all in her head. It was just a rumor the women about the neighborhood were whispering. Lucy heard the kettle whistling and got the morning tea ready before carrying various breakfast items in the dining room.
Yet, as Stacy left the kitchen, she couldn’t keep her foot from tumbling or even the tempered cough. She rushed as best as she could up to her bedroom, closing the door quickly. She refused to let her children see the colour slip from her cheek to a chilling grey.
After some time had passed, a sleepy thirteen-year old with strawberry blonde curls stumbled out into the kitchen. “Oi, I don’t want to go to school,” he groaned, rubbing his dark green eyes.
“Oh, ridiculous,” Lucy stuck her tongue out and threw a dish towel at him. “Would you go get washed up? Breakfast will be done soon.”
Lucy quickly looked back, noticing his head was inching again. Of course, he’d be tall, just as his brothers before him.
“Seriously, would you get ready before the water starts to get cold,” Lucy teased, shaking away the haunting similarity.
“Oh, I can smell the tea from here,” their mother chimed, her hair bundled above her head, bangs artfully framing her face. “How are the eggs doing?”
“Almost there. They are taking a bit longer this morning.”
“Oh Adrian, would you go wash already,” her mother gentle scolded, though it came off more as a tease as her smile escaped her. “before the water gets cold and the butcher comes to get his missing piglet.”
“I know! I know!” Adrian yelled, rushing back up the stairs to the bathroom.
“Darling, will you go set up the shop front?”
“Of course, Mum,” Lucy smiled and opened a nearby door to her mother’s seamstress shop.
While the store was a bit small, it still had a homely appeal to it. The white walls had a warm array of painted flowers along the top of them, just barely kissing the ceiling. Lucy’s bare feet tapped against worn wooden floor as she moved towards the eerie silhouettes covered by off-white sheets. She pulled off the dull slips to reveal cleverly posed manikins showing off some of the latest work her mother had done. She then crossed to the other side of the shop to open a wardrobe filled with an array of colourful garments.
“Don’t forget to turn the sign!” her mother called from the kitchen.
“I never do!” she replied going towards the windows to draw back the ruby curtains.
The sun was now creeping up Pinacerney Circus as more shop windows and houses began to stir and wake. It was odd how happy the morning seemed, but anyone might think such things after suffering such dreadful nightmares.
Lucy turned over cursive ‘Open’ sign in the window and took the cotton out of the bell above the door. Lastly, she unlocked the door and flicked on the newly installed electric lights. With the store now open, her mother would spend the rest of the day moving between customers and the housework.
It didn’t take long as Stacy went from eating with her children to the store front to help her busy costumers. Even though the last Top Hat Equinox Masquerade had come to a close, people were already preparing for next dance. Lucy’s mother had earned quite the reputation for her keen attention to fine details. A gather of pearls to turn a navy dress into a mermaid’s gown – a touch of embroidery to make a simple mouse into a mystifying princess. So yes, while the shop may have been run by a single mom of middle class standings, even those of higher society would come, just to get the chance to have a unique stitch here or a clever ribbon there.
Lucy glanced over to Adrian. Even with the amount of work their mother had, she still managed to make Adrian’s uniform look impeccably tidy. Thoughts drifted in and out as Lucy remembered her own schooling. Her mother insisted she go, and while Lucy loved it, she struggled with the hardship it placed on her family. Yet Stacy remained stubborn; education was the key to an O’Rourke future. Her daughter would be no exception.
Yet, what exactly could Lucy truly amount to? She went to school until she was eleven. Well-learned enough to read and write properly. The rest would have to be self-studies and absorbing what she could from the city. What more was there, except a job as a baker’s storekeeper and eventually some sort of arranged engagement down the road? There could be nothing for a girl such as herself. At least, that is what Lucy thought.
“Oi! Is that really the time?!” She stood abruptly, looking at the clock. “We’ve got to get going Adrian!” She hurried to finish the rest of her tea before fumbling to get her boots.
“Mum, where are my books?!” Adrian yelled through a mouth full of food.
“Over by the counter,” she called back.
“I don’t see them!” He shuffled through various notes and bound books.
Lucy finished lacing up her boots. “I’m off to the bakery,” she yelled at both of them.
“Have a good day,” Her mother cried back.
“Don’t forget my bread,” Adrian added.
Lucy simply rolled her eyes and jogged out of Flat 937. The morning sun painted shades of cool indigo and silver against grey shingled rooftops. Though it couldn’t trick those who knew what wet Lynd’n air meant. As she went, Lucy noted Pinacerney Circus as it rustled awake with the smells of baked goods and rousing horses. People from all different societies were arriving as they prepared for shopping, selling – even stealing. Lucy glimpsed knowingly at the cunning pickpockets and gypsies, who took charge of the crisp November day. The light continued to grow and stretch, pricking the edges of the Victorian buildings made of iron, wood and brick. Pigeons cooed from their nests along the roofs, waiting for the first signs of forgotten bread crumbs. Gothic ironwork twisted against large windows as shop owner drew back heavy drapes and unlatched metal gates. Dust curled from the ground as more carriages took to the street.
The bakery was a little ways ahead when the girl’s eye caught sight of two Top Hats across the way. Her skin instantly prickled and she looked ahead, refusing to make any eye contact. She had no desire to give them the attention the rest of the country did. Parades, banners, saluting, curtsies – no she would have none of that. She would never kneel before those familiar black hats that waltz confidently to wherever their Society needed them.
Lucy rushed into the corner red bricked store with enticing smells of spices and rising bread pouring out of it, putting the Top Hats out of her mind. The Little Baker was just starting to open and already curious customers were pressing to get inside. Mel, head baker while her husband was away in France, was quickly putting out gold displays on maroon tablecloths as her children young and old turned over various signs along the cozy walls and iron-barred windows. An excited determination spread through the fibers of Lucy’s frame as she found herself dancing along the hard wood floor.
“I’m here, Mrs. McPhee,” she chimed pulling off an old flour sack from the emerald cash register.
“Oi, well get yerself in here. And how many times have I told ye to call me Mel?” The plump woman called back as she ran to the back kitchen to start nagging the youthful boys to start cooking.
“I’ll get the register ready,” Lucy smiled, quickly retying her aged apron as the first customer came in. “Welcome to The Little Baker, how can I help you?”
The morning sped by as the customers grew and shrank like a passing breath. Lucy’s humor continued to improved until she couldn’t keep from grinning at the customers praises of her fine job. It was only until mid-afternoon, when Lucy received a telephone ring that she felt she could take a real breath of fresh air. Yet, she completely unprepared for what came next.
©2016 E. M. Vick