The Dress

“Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it.”

Hunter S. Thompson

Gillian settled into the ratty chair behind the sales counter at her mother’s vintage store and propped her feet up on the edge of the register.

Don’t think about it, she told herself. Prom’s no big deal. In a year I won’t care about it anymore. I’ll be out of this stupid town. Then maybe my luck will finally change.

Except it was hard not to think about prom when nearly every car that passed by the store was decorated with streamers and white lettering that read “Bennington Seniors Rock” or “1,000 and 1 Nights”—this last one referencing the prom’s Arabian Nights theme and the prom committee’s assertion that the party would be the most important event in their lives for at least that long.

Gillian eyed the front door. A limo cruised past. Two people emerged from the sunroof and whooped and hollered loud enough to make her wince.

Janice and Ely. The school’s alpha couple. Perfect. Golden. Untouchable.

The ache in Gillian’s chest grew. Ely was mid-laugh. Even from this distance, she could see the dimples in his cheeks. He wasn’t the hottest boy at school—that honor went to Nick Riccio—but he was the kind of guy who you couldn’t stop thinking about. Ely was the poster boy for a romance novel character if ever there was one. A walking cliché. Too charming to actually exist. But then clichés were clichés for a reason, weren’t they? 

It didn’t help that every night she slipped into the bottom bunk of a bed that used to be his. After Ely’s mom donated it to the store, Gillian’s mother decided—given their lack of furniture—that they should use it instead of selling it. He’d carved his name into one of the wood slats on the underside of the top bunk along with bits of random poetry like “Seize the day, as little as possible trusting the future.” Gillian traced those words with her finger every night she slept in the bed, silently reciting them to herself, her heart catching fire.

They felt like a message somehow, as if he knew she would find them and need to read them. She wanted those words to be true. She wanted to believe if she took hold of life, it would stop taking hold of her. She wanted to believe all her bad luck was overcome-able. So far, it hadn’t been true. But it worked for Ely, didn’t it? His life was going exactly as it should. No bad luck there, at least not that she could see.

Gillian averted her eyes back to the book in her hand, an old Danielle Steele novel. Her favorite one. A blueprint for hope. A modern-day fairytale. Life might suck, but the book seemed to promise that disaster would inevitably lead to a happy ending. Once she’d suffered long enough. Surely, she had to be close to that point now.

When the bell at the front door jingled, she was so engrossed in it that she cried out.

“No need to kick up a fuss. It’s just me.” Mrs. Ratcliffe bustled through the door in a sleek black suit, heels clacking, an oversized garment bag held up in one hand. She moved with precision and grace—like a woman twenty years younger, all perfunctory confidence mixed with a sense of entitlement only the very wealthy have. “I told your mother I was coming.”

Gillian nodded. That’s why she was manning the counter. Officially, the store was closed for the evening. She should be in the back room with her mother, eating her usual canned soup and hotplate grilled cheese sandwich dinner in the former office that was now their current home. It had been ever since they were evicted from their apartment. Instead, she was here, waiting for Mrs. Ratcliffe.

“I just wasn’t expecting you until eight.”

Lips pursed, Ratcliffe studied her for a full thirty seconds. “Well, I got done with my other commitments, so here I am. I trust it’s not a problem?” The woman was almost regal in her coolness. Even at ninety, she was a powerhouse with solid white hair and blue-gray eyes the exact shade of a gathering winter storm.

“Of course not.” Gillian reached out for the garment bag.

“My driver, Henry, will be ‘round in the morning with the larger items. We filled a small U-Haul truck.” Ratcliffe glanced around her at the store. “But it appears that you’ve got plenty of space to accommodate it all, haven’t you?”

“Donations have been down lately,” Gillian admitted.

Her mother’s store was dependent on two forms of inventory: stuff she and her mother acquired on their scouting missions at various estate sales, and donations made by community members who received a percentage of the profit if those donations ended up selling. Ever since her mother got breast cancer last year, the scouting missions had become less and less frequent and the need for donations more and more critical to their survival. A donation from someone as wealthy as Ratcliffe and such a large one at that? Priceless. Almost lucky—though Gillian wouldn’t dare label it that way. The universe might hear and rip it away.

Outside, another streamer covered prom car went by. All the windows were down so the people inside could lean out the window. The driver hit the car horn three times in quick succession. The passengers made noises that should’ve sounded jubilant, but sounded like screams instead.

“Why aren’t you out there too? Going to prom?” Ratcliffe scrutinized her. Twin creases formed between the lady’s eyebrows. “You’re a senior.”

“I had to work. Besides, I don’t have a date.” Gillian lay the garment bag on the counter and yanked the zipper down.

“Bah!” Ratcliffe waved her hand in the air as if she was swatting this notion away. “What’s the real reason?”

Gillian swallowed her irritation. She couldn’t afford to tick this woman off, not when the old bat’s donation might bring in enough money for her mother to rent a new apartment for them. They needed this.

“Because I don’t have a dress.”

Or any friends to go with or meet up with once I’m there.

She’d withdrawn from everyone but her mom when her dad died. Now she was practically invisible at school.

Ratcliffe studied her.

Trying to ignore this, Gillian pulled a Prada jacket from the garment bag. It still had its original price tag. Two thousand, two hundred-ninety-five dollars! Even if they sold it for sixty percent off, they’d make nearly a thousand. There were at least twenty other items inside the bag, plus a whole truck coming tomorrow. If they were all like this…

“Why else?” Ratcliffe pressed.

Gillian, half-stunned by the potential profit, shrugged. “It’s…well, I guess I’m afraid to go.” She flinched. Why had she just told Ratcliffe that?

Maybe it was the woman’s stare. It seemed to serve as a key, unlocking all the pent-up frustration inside of Gillian, making it run out of her mouth in a flood.

“Because everything in my life turns to crap. I make it a habit not to go seeking out new ways for it to suck.” There it was, the truth. It sounded ridiculous when she said it out loud. Superstitious. Self-pitying. Pathetic.

“You’re afraid if you go, something awful will happen?” Ratcliffe’s expression softened.

“There’s pretty substantial evidence it will. My life’s been a freaking country song so far—all tragedy all the time.” Gillian laughed bitterly. “I’ve lost nearly every good thing I ever had. So yeah, I’ve stopped seeking them out.”

For as long as she could remember this was true. Her father died on her fifth birthday. A tornado hit Bennington when she was ten—exactly an hour after her first ballet recital—and decimated the only home she’d ever lived in. Then her mother had announced that their home insurance lapsed just before the tornado due to lack of payments. They had to downsize to an apartment. Then two years ago, her mother got breast cancer. One year ago, they were evicted from the apartment. So they moved into the back of the store. Now Gillian slept on Ely’s donated bunk bed with her mother above her. No privacy. No kitchen. And a shoebox bathroom with a utility shower. It was almost laughable—or suspicious—how many bad things had happened, like God or some unseen force was intent on making her suffer.

“Ah.” Ratcliffe stared into space, her face lapsing into an expression that made her look ancient. “I’m sorry, truly.”

“Whatever. It doesn’t matter.”

“But it does,” Ratcliffe murmured.

Gillian pulled more clothes out of the bag and hung them on a nearby rack. “I just need to get out of here.”

 If—no—when she left this stupid town things would change. They always did in Danielle Steele’s novels.

“I’m not sure given your current circumstance that’s possible. You’ll need money and a change of luck first,” the old woman said.

“Yeah, sure. Great idea. Any ideas on how I can get those?” Gillian asked wryly.

“Did you know your mother and my daughter used to be best friends?” Ratcliffe abruptly changed the subject.

Gillian nodded. “Before your daughter moved to Los Angeles.”

Ratcliffe’s daughter was a famous actress. She’d left for Hollywood after getting an offer for a movie role and never looked back. Gillian needed her sort of luck—or Ratcliffe’s. If she were as rich as the old woman…

“Because they were, I can’t help feeling a bit responsible for your mom and you.” Ratcliffe swallowed. “I’m sorry about how things have been.”

Gillian pulled the final few items out of the bag. She kept her back to Ratcliffe. She didn’t want to see the pity on Ratcliffe’s face.

“There’s a dress in there that would do nicely for your prom,” Ratcliffe told her. “I wore it to one of my college formals. Would you like to see it?” She was very still, watching Gillian intently.

Gillian closed her eyes.

Be patient, Gilly, she chided herself. Ratcliffe thinks if she can convince you to go to prom, she’ll have done her charity work for the week. Humor her. Think about the money this stuff’ll bring.

“This one.” Ratcliffe walked over to the rack and pulled out a dress.

Gillian gasped. The dress was emerald green with a form-fitting bodice that gave way to a very full skirt made of tulle and organza. More organza haloed the top in place of sleeves. It was old-fashioned, something straight out of a 1950s movie, but that only made it more beautiful. It was one of a kind, like no other prom dress Gillian had ever seen.

“I know, I felt the same way when I saw it.” Ratcliffe gave her a small smile. She held the dress out. “You could try it on. Just for fun.” She dangled it in front of Gillian.

Gillian touched the skirt. A thrill ran through her. She’d never had a dress half this nice. Any girl wearing it would have to feel beautiful. Confident. Wonderful. She wanted to try those feelings on as much as she wanted to try on the dress, to wear them like a second skin.

“Okay,” she breathed, taking the dress.

When she emerged from the store’s single dressing room, it was Ratcliffe’s turn to gasp.

“My dear, you look wonderful! Even better than I did.” She had a cigarette poised between her fingers, a slim line of smoke drifting up from the end.

“You aren’t supposed to smoke in here.” Gillian walked to the store’s three-way mirror and studied herself. She did look good. No, not good. Pretty. The green of the dress set off her red hair perfectly and somehow made her skin appear flawless. She was glowing. Her eyes had gone from hazel to nearly as green as the dress.

“I’m sure you can allow it this once,” Ratcliffe said, taking a drag off the cigarette and blowing smoke out the side of her mouth. “Now you have to go. If only for a few minutes. People should see you like this.”

Gillian shook her head vehemently. What would Ely think of her now? Or Janice? Or all the other kids from school? They’d been ignoring her for years—like her perpetual bad luck was a plague they might catch.

“Nothing bad can happen to you while you wear a dress like that,” Ratcliffe said softly. “When I wore it, nothing did.”

“But I don’t have proper shoes,” Gillian whispered. She lifted her sneaker-clad foot.

“What size are you?” Ratcliffe asked.

“Seven.”

Ratcliffe bent over and grabbed the black pump off her right foot and its match from her left. She handed them to Gillian. “Size seven. They go perfectly with that dress.” The pumps had a satiny sheen to them. While plainer than most prom shoes, they were perfect.

“I’m starting to feel like Cinderella here,” Gillian laughed. “Except you don’t look like a fairy godmother.”

She expected Ratcliffe to laugh, but she only shrugged and took another deep drag of her cigarette. “I’m merely presenting an opportunity. It’s up to you to make it real.”

Seize the day, right?

Hadn’t she been looking at that quote for long enough without taking its advice?

Gillian slipped the shoes on. A perfect fit. And if it was a bit uncomfortable that they were warm, that Ratcliffe had only just taken them off, Gillian didn’t dwell on it.

Was she really considering this? Going?

Yes, she was.

***

The prom was in full swing when Ratcliffe’s driver dropped her off. The red carpet leading inside the country club was still there, but no one was on it. That was okay. That was good. She needed the few extra minutes to steady herself.

“Quit dawdling,” Ratcliffe said, leaning her head out the back window and waving a hand towards the front door.

The country club was normally a beacon of old society fussiness, all oil paintings of bucolic scenes, and dark mahogany furniture, but tonight it was transformed into an Arabian oasis in keeping with the prom’s theme. Multicolored fabric hung from the ceiling to form a tent. Chests filled to the brim with fake gold coins and jewels were stacked and scattered in the corners of the room and on the refreshment tables. Candles with fake flames hung in elaborate lanterns, dangling just out of reach above the dance floor. It was obvious the prom committee had enlisted the drama department’s set builders because it was well done enough to feel real. The only glaring inconsistency was the music—more Top Forty than Arabian nights.

Gillian lingered in the entryway. She’d avoided events like these for as long as the kids at school had avoided her. Janice was at the center of the dance floor—no surprise there—both arms stretched out over her head, hair swirling around her bare shoulders. She danced with the swagger of someone whose life scales were firmly tipped in the direction of good fortune.

What was that like?

Gillian itched to know, if only for tonight. She stroked the dress. If she believed it was lucky, could it be?

“Seize the day, as little as possible trusting the future.” She recited Ely’s quote to herself. She wasn’t trusting tomorrow to be better. She was banking on now.

“Hey.”

Gillian blinked. She’d been so caught up watching Janice she hadn’t noticed she was no longer alone. Ely was beside her.

Ely.

She had been thinking about him, now here he was. Her stomach took the express elevator to her heels.

“Hey.” She tried to match his nonchalant tone.

“Gillian, right?” His deep brown eyes twinkled.

She tried not to be upset that he wasn’t sure of her name after years of passing her in the hallway. She ran her fingers down the dress. The feel of the fabric was comforting. It was like armor this dress. She knew—somewhere deep down—that nothing could hurt her while she wore it. Strange. But good strange. Very good strange. “Right.”

“We’ve never really talked before.”

Gillian felt the hunger in his stare. He’d never looked at her like this. She fantasized about it so often. Was she fantasizing now? Maybe she was back at the store, in his old bunkbed dreaming. Except, she never had dreams like this. Most nights, sleep was just diving into a black nothing. It’s hard to dream when they never come true.

“In tenth grade, you asked if you could borrow a pencil,” she admitted.

Ely laughed. “I did?”

“I gave it to you. My favorite one, actually.”

“You have a favorite pencil?” Ely’s eyebrow arched in a way that made it hard for her to speak.

“Every artist does,” Gillian said. “Mine are Palamino Blackwings for writing. Faber Castells for drawing.”

“I thought all pencils were Number Two’s.”

Gillian laughed.

“Did I ever give it back?”

“No.”

“Ah, so then I owe you.”

Gillian shook her head.

“Then can I borrow something else?”

The way he was looking at her…was he flirting?

“Only if you promise to return it this time,” she said, surprising herself by flirting back.

“I promise.” But he was holding up his hand and his fingers were crossed.

“What do you want to borrow?”

“You. For a dance—or two.” He held out his hand.

Gillian was out of her depth. He wanted to dance. With her.

“What about Janice?”

“I’m not asking Janice. I’m asking you.”

Janice was his girlfriend. Gillian should say no. But then again, when had Janice ever watched out for her? Or ever even acknowledged she existed?

Gillian had joked earlier about Ratcliffe being her fairy godmother, but now she really was having her very own Cinderella moment. It was surreal, like something out of a movie, but damn it, she deserved it, didn’t she? If the dress was truly giving her luck, then she was going to take it and enjoy it for as long as it lasted.

“Okay,” she said.

Ely’s hand was warm. His fingers laced perfectly with hers. They headed towards the dance floor. Normally, Gillian walked with her eyes downcast, as if by watching the floor carefully enough she could avoid any further missteps. Tonight, though, she walked with her head held high, the dress’s cinched waist making her stand tall.

Tonight. It all changes tonight.

It wasn’t a thought so much as a whisper in the back of her brain.

Murmurs rippled through the crowded dance floor. Gillian could feel everyone’s eyes on her. And it felt good. Better than good. Ely led her out to the center of the dance floor.

Janice was smiling at first, when all she saw was Ely, but then her eyes traveled down the length of his arm, and focused on Gillian’s hand caught firmly in his. Her jaw slackened in disbelief. “Ely?”

Ely barely seemed to notice her. He kept looking back at Gillian with the sort of gooey adoring smile that normally would’ve made Gillian roll her eyes, but instead made her feel like she’d just drank a cup of warm tea with honey, all sugary warm.

“Ely.” This time there was an edge to Janice’s voice. “What’re you doing?”

“I don’t totally know,” Ely admitted dreamily.

Gillian frowned.

Janice grabbed his arm. “Are you serious right now?”

Ely shrugged her off and swept Gillian into his arms, his hand planted firmly at the small of her back. He spun her around in slow circles.

“What’s happening?” he said softly.

Gillian shook her head, too shocked to answer, but she knew, didn’t she? It was the dress. She felt it, the magic coursing through it, through her. It was an intoxicating rush of power that put goosebumps up and down her arms.

Ely brought her hand up to his chest. His heart hammered away, the beats as quick as her own. He stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. “I can’t take my eyes off you. You’re all lit up inside,” he said softly. “Like you were on a dimmer before or something. Barely there.”

“I was.”

“Why?”

She bit her lip and looked over his shoulder. Janice was there with a cluster of her friends gathered around her. They stared intently at Gillian. “Because people like me always are to people like you and Janice. We don’t shine. Not on our own anyway.”

“Not true,” he argued, but she thought she heard doubt in his voice.

“I guess tonight I’m seizing the day,” she said.

“As little as possible trusting the future,” he said back, his smile widening. “You know Horace’s Ode?”

Horace’s Ode? His quote was poetry? She hadn’t realized this. Somehow this made him even more perfect. She tucked her head into his shoulder. He pressed his cheek to her hair. She inhaled his soap and cologne, the subtle tang of his skin. She wanted this moment to last forever. She needed this to be a tipping point. The start of more good things. She felt greedy for them. She glanced up at Janice, who was still watching her, and smiled.

“It’s my turn,” she murmured.

A moment later all hell broke loose.

A piece of the scaffolding holding up the fabric tent above Gillian’s head gave way with a twang of snapping wires. There was a swift and sudden wind as a metal bar came swinging down over the dance floor, whizzing past Gillian and Ely. It made contact with Janice, or more precisely, with her face. The rough edge of the bar caught the side of Janice’s cheek, fileting it. She screamed and brought one startled hand up to her ruined face. The bar kept going, swinging past her, up towards the ceiling again, before plunging back down and impacting with the back of Janice’s head. More screams erupted from the crowd as Janice’s eyes rolled back. She swayed to the left a step, then to the right. Blood poured from the gaping wound on her face. Her hair was painted a gory red. She went down in a heap.

“My god,” Mr. Ellison, Gillian’s economics professor shouted. “Call 911!” He went down on his knees beside an unconscious Janice, his hand going to her forehead then to her neck, feeling for her pulse. “Now!” he cried to anyone who would listen.

Gillian watched, dumbstruck, her body still pressed tight to Ely, her hands gripping his suit jacket hard.

It was an accident.

 It had to be.

But it wasn’t.

The dress vibrated against her body, alive with power and malice. It whispered into her soul.

Yes. Yes. More.

She’d wanted tonight to be her moment. She hadn’t been wishing Janice bad luck exactly, but she had been imagining taking her luck away, of drawing it to herself instead. And then that bar fell.

The dress heard her.

Slowly, Janice came to. She let out a wail. Mr. Ellison coaxed her to keep still. “Your neck might be injured,” he said.

The dress did this.

It didn’t make sense, but she knew it was true. And worse? Even as horror-struck as she was, some part of her enjoyed this reversal of fortune, fed off of it as much as the dress did. This scared her more than anything.

What had she done?

***

Gillian left the prom in a hurry, slipping out of Ratcliffe’s heels and sprinting barefoot into the night before Ely could try to convince her to stay. She wanted to rip the dress off right there, but she couldn’t very well run down the streets naked. She needed to get to Ratcliffe. Now.

Ratcliffe’s house was nestled at the top of a hillside behind an impressive iron fence. It literally looked down on the entire town.

Gillian pressed the button on the box beside the front gate. “Come on, come on!” she muttered. “Answer, you old bat!”

“Hello?” Ratcliffe’s voice was tinny and far away.

“It’s Gillian. Open up.”

A buzzer sounded and the large gate creaked open. Gillian charged forward, up the winding driveway, and into the house, not bothering to ring the doorbell.

Ratcliffe was sitting in the room to the right of the entryway. She looked tiny, ensconced in one of the deep sofas beside the darkened fireplace, her legs tucked under a fluffy wool blanket. Her usual confidence was gone. She looked meek and maybe a little scared.

“What did you do?” Gillian practically screamed.

Ratcliffe sipped amber liquid from a heavy crystal goblet. “I gave you what you wanted.”

Gillian shook her head. “No. No. I didn’t want this.” Janice’s bloodied face flashed across her memory. Her throat started to tighten up and tears pricked her eyes.

“Changing your luck comes at a cost.” Ratcliffe eyed her over the rim of her glass before setting it down next to a large decanter with more of the amber liquid.

Bourbon, Gillian guessed. Her father used to drink it.

“You should’ve told me what could happen.”

“Would you have believed me?”

“Yes.”

No.

“Don’t fool yourself, girl. You needed that dress. Wanted it. I could see it in your eyes. That’s why I offered it to you.” Ratcliffe’s mouth spread into a tremulous smile.

“I didn’t want what happened. What the dress did.”

Ratcliffe opened the drawer in the side table beside her and pulled out her silver cigarette box. She selected a cigarette and brought it to her lips. Her lighter was on the side table, next to the crystal glass. She rubbed her finger over the striker and cupped the flame to the end of the cigarette. “I told myself that at first too—after the first time. I told myself that I wouldn’t use the power again. But I did. And so will you.” She took a long drag and exhaled. “The dress can take away your mom’s cancer.”

Gillian blinked. “Impossible.”

“It can. Whatever you want. Riches? Fame? Look at my daughter for proof. She got her big break when your father…” Ratcliffe’s gaze was heavy on her. Expectant.

Wait.

Gillian’s eyes widened.

“Now you’re getting it,” Ratcliffe said quietly, taking another drag on her cigarette. “I was desperate to please her. And desperate people will do anything, won’t they?” She tried for an offhand expression, but it wasn’t working. The old lady’s eyes were bright with pain.

Gillian’s whole body was shaking. “What happened to my father was…”

“The cost of my daughter’s fame. Yes.”

“And the rest of it? Our house? My mom being sick?”

Ratcliffe stared at her, her face going paler, frailer. “I didn’t choose your family. The dress did that.”

“Oh my god. Oh my god.”

Gillian had felt cursed because she was. And it was all Ratcliffe’s—and the dress’s—fault.

“I’m going to pay. For all of it,” Ratcliffe said quickly, her hands up in surrender. “The dress sees to that. It serves you only so long as you own it. After that, well, your sins come home to roost. But I’m old and it’s time.” Ratcliffe dropped the stub of her cigarette into the glass of bourbon. Her hands trembled so hard she barely managed it. She laughed bitterly. “Look at me. I thought I wouldn’t be scared, but here I am. Terrified.”

Gillian trembled too, but not from fear. “You deserve to die for what you did.”

“And so I will,” Ratcliffe told her. “Very, very soon. Though the waiting is going to be difficult. Not knowing when.” She picked up the bottle of bourbon and lifted it to her lips. Her hands trembled so badly she spilled most of it down her chest trying to get it to her mouth. Half-laughing, half-crying, she wiped her chin with the back of her hand and then dabbed the front of her blouse.

“I won’t use it. I won’t be like you.” Gillian said. She clawed at the dress. “I’m going to get rid of it. This won’t happen to anyone ever again.” She yanked it down, off her shoulders, down past her chest and hips. She stepped out of it and threw it into the fireplace. She would light it on fire. Turn it to ash.

Ratcliffe watched her. “You can’t destroy it. Don’t you think I’ve tried? You own it or you give it away. Those are the only choices. It’s yours until you find someone else to give it to.”

“So you gave it to me? You cursed me?” Gillian grabbed the old lady’s shoulders and shook her hard. “After stealing all the luck from my family? Making me lose my dad?”

“I’m trying to give back what I’ve taken—in some small way. The rest of your life will be easy. The dress will see to that. All you have to do is keep it. Use it. Then pass it on when you get old enough—like me.”

“AT SOMEONE ELSE’S EXPENSE!” Gillian roared. “I can’t do that.”

“But you already have.” Ratcliffe’s laugh was high and tight, nearly hysterical. “And the moment you give it away there will be a price to pay for whatever happened at prom. The dress will collect the moment you don’t own it anymore.”

“Because of what happened to Janice.” Gillian could barely say the girl’s name. She grabbed Ratcliffe’s lighter, crouched by the fireplace, and touched it to the dress, but no matter how long she held the flame to it, the dress would not catch fire. The flames simply danced across its surface and died.

“I told you. It can’t be destroyed.” Ratcliffe said quietly.

“So what can I do then?” Gillian said. Tears pressed against her eyes, blurring Ratcliffe so she looked like a silver-haired ghost—all shadow, no substance. She guessed the answer without Ratcliffe saying a word. “I keep it. But never use it.”

Ratcliffe nodded. “But it’s easier said than done. The not using.” She hung her head and crouched down beside the fireplace to retrieve the dress. As soon as her fingers met the fabric, the flames sprang up again, as if they’d never extinguished in the first place.

The bourbon.

It had spilled all down Ratcliffe’s front.

 Gillian watched, horrified, as the flames leapt from the dress to the center of Ratcliffe’s chest where they lapped greedily at the old woman’s bourbon-soaked blouse.

Ratcliffe screamed.

Gillian stumbled backward, out of the way of the fire. She should do something.

Water. She needed water.

She ran to the kitchen. Tried the tap. No water came out. Gillian cried out and ran back to Ratcliffe. She could wrap her in the floor rug. Try to smother the fire.

But it was too late for that.

Ratcliffe’s eyes bugged out of her head. Her skin bubbled, blistering in front of Gillian’s eyes. This was the bill for all Ratcliffe had taken from Gillian and her family coming due.

All the anger Gillian had felt a moment ago vanished as Ratcliffe collapsed onto the floor. The dress fell from the old woman’s grip. Gillian grabbed it. She couldn’t die like that. Not like that. Not ever.

She put the dress back on even though the power rush it gave her made her want to gag.  It was either that or go upstairs and find something of the old lady’s to wear which seemed even more horrific. And she needed to get away from Ratcliffe. She couldn’t stay here a moment longer. When the police showed up—and they would soon—how could she explain what happened?

Sobbing, Gillian slipped out of the house and into the night.

***

Gillian stood outside her mother’s store for a long time, staring at her reflection in the store’s front window and trying to catch her breath.

What am I going to do?

The dress glowed under the streetlights, beautiful even now, after everything that happened. Some part of her was still drawn to it, liked the feel of it on her skin, couldn’t help imagining all it could do.

She went around to the back of the store and ducked inside. The moment the door shut, she yanked the dress off for the second time.

I can never wear it again. But I can’t give it away either.

A wave of nausea overtook her. She could still smell Ratcliffe burning. And the look on the woman’s face as she burned. It was pure agony. And fear.

 I can’t die like that, Gillian thought. I won’t

She held the dress away from herself. I can do this—own it, but never wear it. That way I stay alive and I don’t steal anyone else’s luck. I’ll hide it. Put it somewhere and forget about it. She walked the dress to the far corner of the store and climbed the ladder that led up to a crawl space in the ceiling. She threw the dress into the farthest corner.

Satisfied, she inched back down, went to the small room she shared with her mother, and climbed into bed. Tears streamed down her face. She stared up at the bunk above her and listened to her mother’s deep, even breaths.

It’s going to be okay now, she told herself, and for the first time, she didn’t read Ely’s quote, didn’t think about seizing the day. She decided instead to forget.

***

Gillian woke up to the sound of her mother crying.

“What is it?” She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.

“It’s Mrs. Ratcliffe. She died last night.” Tears trickled down her mother’s face.

Gillian swallowed hard and tried to look surprised. “She did?”

“The police think it was suicide. Apparently, she set herself on fire.”

“Oh my god.”

Her mother dropped her head into her hands. “And I’m an awful person because I should feel bad for her—and I do—but all I can think about are her donations.”

Gillian frowned. “Her donations?”

“Her daughter called this morning. She wants them back. Said she couldn’t bear to part with any of her mother’s things this soon after the woman died. I had to agree, but we needed that money, Gilly. So, so badly.”

“I know.”

“I don’t see how I can keep the store running.”

“I know,” Gillian murmured. 

She reached for her mother, encircled her in a tight hug.

“What are we going to do?” Her mother cried into her shoulder over and over. She’d been thin before her cancer, but now she was little more than bones stretched over skin. Gillian passed a hand along her mother’s back, over the sharpened angles of her shoulder blades and all she could think about was that dress.

 Hidden away.

Waiting.

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