Written for the I’ve Chosen Your Words Terrible Minds flash fiction challenge.
I had to use ten of the following words. Can you spot which ones I used? Beast, brooch, cape, dinosaur, dove, fever, finger, flea, gate, insult, justice, mattress, moth, paradise, research, scream, seed, sparrow, tornado, university.
Veronica stepped through the litter of smashed bird cages. Bent wire twisted along the ground beneath her feet. Lifting her dress, she stepped over the glittering remains of a glass water dish that had smashed against the concrete floor. A dove lay sprawled and bloody, one wing punctured with wire, raised in a salute.
“They’re all dead,” D’Emanuele said. She could hear the fever in his voice; a sweaty whine that lingered in the humid air. She looked to him, watched him draw out a linen handkerchief and mop his face. It quickly soaked through, and he dropped the sodden material with an exclamation of disgust. “This bloody heat! We shouldn’t have come here.”
“We came here for you,” she said. She looked back down at the dove. Now that she looked closer she could see the feathers were crawling with tiny fleas. “I wonder what happened. Do you think Mistress Daze is gone?”
“She had to have been some kind of crazy, trying to keep all these birds.” D’Emanuele leaned against the door frame. Veronica watched him covertly, saw him struggling to draw his breath. She knew he longed for England and for Sarah. She gently touched a finger to the locket at her throat. She knew that longing.
“Let’s get out of here,” D’Emanuele said.
“We need to find Mistress Daze.”
“Mistress Daze is obviously not here!”
She compressed her lips. D’Emanuele had become increasingly short with her lately. Veronica missed Michael’s soft tones. She wished she had never left him. All to accompany D’Emanuele on this wretched voyage. They had come here expecting paradise, to find a rare plant, to engage in scientific research and push back the boundaries of knowledge. All they had found was disease, disease and sweaty, dead air that trapped your lungs in a vice.
She moved to the door that separated this room from the next. The handle was made of worn ivory, yellow and cool to the touch. She turned it slowly, listened to the creak of the door as it opened into darkness.
“Visitors?” a shrill voice came from the shadows. Veronica took a step back despite herself. Then Mistress Daze appeared and Veronica choked back a scream. Tangled blonde hair piled atop a skull-like face. Eyes black as pitch, bloodless lips stretching into a grotesque smile. A dirty evening gown hung in baggy folds around a skeletal figure. A gold brooch dragged the bodice of the gown down, revealing yellowed lace. The woman narrowed her eyes at Veronica, then threw back her head in a maniacal laugh. “Visitors!”
“Ye gods,” D’Emanuele said. Veronica half turned to him, saw him staring at the woman in horror. The sweat standing out on his face reminded Veronica of why they had come. She fought to control herself, to not insult the woman they had come to find.
“I’m sorry to have disturbed you. But please. My employer, Dr Peter D’Emanuele is sick. They told us you had medicine that could help him.”
“Medicine?” Mistress Daze cocked her head to one side, pulled at her chin with long fingers. “I have medicine. But none for the likes of you! Be gone!” She spat the last words and reached for the door. Veronica stepped forward and grasped the woman’s hand. It was cold. Mistress Daze froze, still as a statue, her snake eyes fixed on Veronica’s face. Unblinking.
“What happened to your birds?” Veronica blurted.
“They were naughty.” A grey tongue flicked over narrow lips. “Miss them, my little birds, nobody sings to Mistress Daze now.”
“Dr D’Emanuele isn’t a doctor of medicine,” Veronica said. “He’s a botanist. He came here from the University of Cambridge to research a rare orchid. But he’s sick. He needs your help.”
“Give him to me,” Mistress Daze said. Behind Veronica, D’Emanuele made a choking noise.
“You need to examine him?”
Mistress Daze swayed, then gently unwound Veronica’s hand from her own. Her face had become empty, and her eyes seemed to look far beyond Veronica, at some distant point.
“He has a fever, he needs your help.” Veronica said. She heard D’Emanuele behind her starting to interrupt. But she spoke over him. She knew that sweaty glaze to the skin. D’Emanuele had no idea how much danger he was in. If D’Emanuele died how would Veronica get off this island and back to Michael?
Mistress Daze fluttered her hands over Veronica’s dress, tangled her long fingers in the chain around Veronica’s neck. “I’ll give you medicine. In return… give me your little sparrow.”
“My sparrow? You mean my locket?” Veronica pulled the thin gold chain from around her neck. Mistress Daze snatched the jewellery, turned the locket over until she found the clasp. The picture, sepia toned, fell into her hand. Michael, in his moth-eaten jacket. A strange terror passed through Veronica, but she rejected it. Michael was safe at home, in England. A thousand miles from this tropical madness.
Mistress Daze slid the picture back into the locket with her thumb. She snapped it closed and then hung the chain around her own neck. It seemed too big for her scrawny neck. A crazed grin bloomed on her face. “Someone to sing for me. Wait here.”
Mistress Daze disappeared into the darkness beyond the door. Veronica stood, anxiety churning in her stomach. D’Emanuele stayed silent. The air lay across everything, turgid, almost solid, strapping itself around limbs and soaking into eyes and ears.
“Here!” Mistress Daze threw the small bottle at Veronica who barely caught it. “Fever cure. Be gone!”
Veronica didn’t wait. She stumbled to the door, her dress catching on the broken cage wire. D’Emanuele placed his hand on her shoulder and guided her out into the wet heat. Veronica clutched the bottle to her chest. Behind her, Mistress Daze began to laugh.