Two minutes after Dr. Mangrove made the announcement that Hadley was going to die, Lucinda walked in the bedroom stirring a cup of chamomile with her finger and smiling like it was Christmas. Hadley’s momma lay across his legs, soaking the blanket with her tears, but Lucinda didn’t seem to see her. She poked that tea-stirring finger into Hadley’s mouth as though she meant to feed him the whole cup one lick at a time.
“I brought you something,” she said, and she wasn’t talking about tea. Hadley followed her gaze to the strip of violet paper on the rim of the saucer. He waited until she left before he let himself look at it:
I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and I could feel the hot breath on my neck–
About the time he got to the hot breath part, Hadley’s fingers let loose and the words loopty-looped away with all the devilish momentum of a broken promise.
On any other day, Hadley’s momma would have been curious to know what Lucinda Browning had passed to her seventeen-year-old son. On any other day, Hadley would have squashed the note in his palm, hiding it away like he hid all of Lucinda’s secrets. Lucinda, however, was always on her toes. Because Hadley was the cook’s son and Lucinda Browning was a Browning, she was careful to return later and search for the note under his bed. “Did you read it?” she asked, as if his momma wasn’t there.
Hadley gave a nod.
Lucinda balled the note up and pitched it in the fire. With a sigh that seemed to say; Well that’s that then, she leaned down and ran her teeth around the hair pin-curve of his ear. “I wonder, Hadley Crump. If you had it to do all over again–would you do it all over again?”
Hadley, who suffered a sudden and desperate desire to do it all over again, could only answer, “Yessssssssss.”
To remember it was to re-live it:
“Hadley Crump. Hadley Crump,” Lucinda called out through the twisting tunnel of the past, as she tapped her finger against her lip to the beat of his name. “I’d like to write a poem about you, but the only words I can think of to rhyme with Hadley are ‘badly’ and ‘madly,’ and those are such sordid words to use for a child.”
“How about ‘gladly?’” the child suggested, for the day Hadley was remembering took place eight years ago, when he was nine years old and just a child.
Lucinda Browning was nine as well, but her mouth was at least twenty. “Have these washed,” she said to him, throwing her dirty bloomers in his face. “And I better get them back.”
Hadley stood with her underwear on his head as she composed the Hadley poem:
There once was a boy named Hadley
Who wanted a girl very badly
She was out of his reach
But he hung on like a leach
Loving her gladly and madly.
Seeing how he was only nine, Hadley thought it plain nuts he would ever love any girl other than his momma. Even so, the suffocating cloud that was Lucinda’s bloomers made his brain swirl to such a degree, he grew convinced the poem was some sort of witchy incantation. Lucinda’s underwear smelled of soap and sunshine and a face-full of sweet peas, and they were softer than a sob. He got to like them so well, he thought he might never take those sunshiny knickers off his head.
“Idiot!” she snorted, yanking Heaven away, but there was something familiar about the two fired-up eyes in her face that shone into his own. They were the same as Uncle Orvie’s eyes, right before he ate up that big plate of fat pullets so quick he choked himself dead at the table.
Seeing how he was only nine, Hadley promptly forgot about those fancy bloomers until some weeks later, when Lucinda whirled around the toy room while he was building up a fire. Hadley got so transfixed watching her twirl, he couldn’t help but singe off whole sections of his eyebrows.
“It’s hopeless, you know,” the hoe boy, Bumps, said when he caught Hadley watching her on her swing one day.
“Why?” Hadley wondered, for he could smell big whiffs of Ivory soap with every pump she made, and he was too young, as yet, to believe that anything was ever hopeless.
“Look at your hands,” Bumps said. “You’d muss her up good if ever you put those grimy things on her.”
“Could be I might wash ‘em,” Hadley said, spitting on his palm to demonstrate his plan.
“Shoot,” Bumps laughed. “You can’t get ‘em clean enough for a girl like that. Unless she likes things dirty, you ain’t never gonna do nothing bigger than peep at her from behind this hedge.”
What Hadley and Bumps didn’t know back then was that Lucinda liked things dirty.
One day, in a fit of boredom, Lucinda, who had recently broken her leg, announced that she was going to teach the servant children how to read. “I shall begin with Hadley Crump.”
Come Monday, Hadley was pulled from egg-pickling and stood up half-dressed on a stool in the necessary. His momma scrubbed until he was sore, squeezed him into tight shoes, and sent him off to Lucinda’s room, wetting his hair with a licked thumb as he went. “Be nice to Miss Lucinda,” she whispered. It was funny that she said that.
“I already learnt how to read,” he told Lucinda when he arrived, marveling at the way her hair resembled melted butter, dripping down the pillow. He’d been at Browning House long enough to develop a taste for Lucinda’s snide ways by then. Bumps called her Miss Fancy Pants and snickered about her devil eyes, but Hadley would rather catch a slug from Miss Fancy Pants than a kiss from any other girl. And now she wanted to watch him stutter through some baby primer like an imbecile. If only he could! A lesser boy would have faked illiteracy, but Hadley always bumbled lies and anyway, it didn’t occur to him to be anything but honest. “My father teached me before he left.”
“Thank heavens,” was all Lucinda said. “I hate giving lessons.”
“What are we gonna do then?” he asked, praying she wouldn’t send him away.
“Well,” said Lucinda. “If you promise to stop looking at me like you’re about to pee your britches, I might just let you join my club.”
“Club?” Hadley repeated the word with an unhappy shudder. He did not know how to play bridge or quilt or dance cotillions, and those were the only clubs he could think of.
“It’s a secret club, Gladly Hadley. That means you can’t tell anyone about it. Understand?”
Hadley nodded. He strong suspected there wasn’t another girl in all the world who could look so good with her leg flopped up and her clothes all crooked. “Does it have a name?”
“Of course, you silly boy. Readers of Violent Indefensible Lust and Evil.”
“That’s too long to remember,” he said.
“V.I.L.E. for short, you dummy. Anyway, it’s not like we’re going to have stationary and all that. Now close the door and go and prize up that floorboard over by the window that has my boot on it.”
Under the floorboard was a small cranny stuffed with two books.
“Finally,” Lucinda said, snatching them from Hadley. “I didn’t know how I was going get my hands on these until my leg improved.” She held up one of the books. “Ever read this?” The Curly-Q title said that it was called Anna Karenina. Then she laughed. “Of course you haven’t. No decent woman would let her son look at such a thing.”
“Why not?” Hadley asked, scratching at the curls his momma had spit down.
“I’ll tell you why. Read this sentence here.”
Hadley read in a careful way, trying his best to sound schooled:
And as the murderer, with fury, and, as it were, with passion, falls on the body, and drags it, and hacks at it—so he covered her face and shoulders with kisses.
“Filthy, isn’t it?” Lucinda sniggered.
“Yes, you little nimrod. Anna Karenina is a married woman and she isn’t married to the man murdering her with kisses. This is disgraceful stuff, Hadley.”
“Should I put it back then?”
“Not on your life. We’re going to read every unsavory word of it, and there’s going to be a test, too.”
“But I already told you, I read just fine.”
Lucinda, who was perhaps the world’s most accomplished sigher, sighed expertly and thumped him on the forehead. “Looks like I’ll have to teach you a thing or two after all, Hadley. We’re going to read until Daddy fetches you back to work, and then I’m going to let you borrow a book. The Age of Innocence. I want you to search through it tonight and find me the naughtiest passage you can come up with. Now hand me Through the Looking Glass over there.”
Lucinda put Anna Karenina inside Through the Looking Glass, fit the little monocle she fancied into position over her right eye, and began to read to Hadley. Mostly it seemed boring, but he enjoyed the way Lucinda said the words like she was telling him a secret.
When it was time to go, she instructed him to hide The Age of Innocence down the front of his trousers until he could put it somewhere safe. It turned out, Hadley’s momma had no idea the book was evil. When he took it from under the mattress later, she said, “It was nice of Miss Lucinda to let you borrow a book.”
Ever since the lessons had come up, Hadley’s mother had been grinning like a possum eating a yellow jacket. She knew, of course, that Hadley could work his way through even the trickiest of Bible passages without getting tongue-tied, but she believed there was always room for improvement. Looking at Lucinda’s hellborn book, Momma beamed at the thought of her boy taking on such a big, fat endeavor. Hadley was stricken with a stomach ache owing to that, but really the book seemed harmless. It was midnight before he stumbled on anything lurid.
The next afternoon, he read his passage to Lucinda:
He sat bowed over, his head between his hands, staring at the hearth-rug, and at the tip of the satin shoe that showed under her dress. Suddenly he knelt down and kissed the shoe.<
"Hm," Lucinda said, wrapping her finger with the chain of the tiger tooth necklace her Daddy had brought from India. "Where are the bosoms and the hot caresses?"
"Archer kissed her shoe," Hadley said. "I would never kiss a lady's crummy old shoe. He must really like her to do that."
Lucinda looked at him like he had two heads. Then she smiled. "Hadley Crump, you dirty boy! For a downstairs domestic, you're really rather brilliant."
Encouraged by his brilliance, Hadley began staying up late, searching for just the right thing to bring to Club. His mother gave him a stack of recipe cards that had been stained when the kitchen ceiling sprung a leak. Hadley filled the cards with lines he copied for Lucinda.
After Lucinda's leg healed, the pair was allowed to continue meeting under the pretext of reading lessons. It was not unusual that Hadley would find a slip of violet paper on a dirty plate with something Lucinda had copied for him.
One morning, he fished a note from a puddle of honey Lucinda had left behind with the crusts of her toast. At the time they were reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but the sticky words he read did not come from the story:
We need a sharp knife, Hadley.
Hadley was thrilled and went to Club that afternoon with a boning knife slid up his sleeve. The fun came to a stand-still when Lucinda took hold of the knife and told him to stick out his finger. “We’re going to make a blood pact, just like Tom and Huck.”
In Hadley’s opinion, it was enough that Huck said cusses like by jingoes and damn. “We don’t need to spill no blood over this, Lucinda.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You trust me. I, on the other hand, have no faith in you at all. Unless you’re willing to make a pact that we’ll keep V.I.L.E. a secret forever, I’m going to have to ask you to quit the club.”
“Them boys used a needle, as I recall.”
Lucinda sniggered at that. “Needle-dweedle! We’re not such cowards, are we?”
Hadley looked down at his finger. “That knife’s real sharp, Lucinda. I cut up a chicken with it yesterday.”
“We wouldn’t want a dull blade, would we?”
Hadley licked his lips. “Okay, but I’ll cut my own self, if you don’t mind.”
She pressed the knife to his skin. “Oh but I do mind, Hadley. Now quit your squawking and hold still.”
In retrospect, this wasn’t the smartest time for him to call her a Bossy Bessie, but Hadley didn’t recognize that until after she cut him.
“Whoops,” Lucinda said. “You’re quite a bleeder, aren’t you, Hadley?”
The Club was a nasty game, and one that Lucinda was not above taking too far. When they read The Poison Ring, Lucinda convinced Hadley that he needed to drink wool dye to prove his dedication to V.I.L.E. After that, he puked indigo puke for a day and a half. Once he recovered enough, he quit the club.
“Oh, that’s a pity,” Lucinda said, knotting her index finger with the chain of her tiger tooth. “And we were just about to start Romeo and Juliet, too.”
“I know how that story ends,” Hadley scoffed. “You can find yourself another fool.”
“It was the kissing part I had in mind to try,” she sighed woefully. “Oh well. I guess Bumps Bumpstead might be interested if you’re not.”
“You wouldn’t kiss Bumps Bumpstead,” Hadley snorted.
“I’d rather kiss you.”
About then, Hadley forgot all about that indigo puke. “You would?”
Lucinda shrugged. “It might be fun.”
“All right,” Hadley said. “But no more dye-drinking.”
Lucinda didn’t kiss him though. She let him lay next to her on the toy room sofa but they both had to pretend like they were dead. Even so, Hadley reckoned that holding his breath and lying still beside Lucinda was better than nothing at all.
It occurred to him after a year or two that people must think he was very dumb. Not once did anyone question what a slow-learner Hadley appeared to be. Sometimes he had the urge to scream out their secret, especially to his momma, who thought it pure impossibility that anyone like Lucinda would ever give a Crump any real attention. But Hadley knew he could never tell a soul about Lucinda’s club, most of all his momma.
The older they got, the trickier the V.I.L.E. books became. Lucinda told Hadley that his ears turned red whenever he gave her a particularly good recipe card. “You like that one, don’t you, Hadley?” she’d laugh. “I bet you wish I’d say such things to you.”
To Hadley’s way of thinking, she was saying such things to him, and he was pretty sure she knew it too. She would plunk him on the head and poke fun at his bad hair cuts and red ears, but she never asked anyone else to join their club, and she never let anyone else borrow her books—not even the acceptable ones.
Not even Dickie Worther-Holms, whose father owned Worther-Holms Homes, the biggest builder of fine homes this side of the Mississippi. Dickie Worther-Holms was sixteen and already had a mustache and his own motor car, and Lucinda had confided that sometimes she let Dickie kiss her. Hadley was very jealous but he was sure she’d let him kiss her too, if only he could find the right naughty passage.
One day Spitbone, the pigman, told Hadley about a book that was so scandalous, his young wife burned it in the dutch when she caught him reading it. Dracula it was called, and Spitbone said there was only one store in town daring enough to sell it—Pringle’s Second-Hands. Hadley made up his mind right then to save his picayunes.
He was sixteen before he could afford the book and to pay Spitbone to buy it for him. “Watch yourself with that, kid,” Spitbone warned when he handed over Dracula, wrapped in brown paper. “That book’ll get you into trouble.”
Hadley didn’t tell Spitbone, but trouble was exactly what he hoped to get into when he read the book to Lucinda.
At first, Lucinda only glared at Dracula like it was a shoe with dog poop stuck to the heel. They were sitting on the floor in the toy room, and Lucinda had been thinking they would read Ulysses for their next selection. Ulysses was not even allowed in the country, she said. Lucinda had stolen it from her daddy’s desk drawer.
“A monster story?” she grumbled when Hadley took the book out of his pants, shaking her head at the ridiculousness of his choice. “Does anyone actually fornicate in this book?”
“Worse,” Hadley promised. “People are bitten.”
“What fun is that?” she groaned.
“How about this,” Hadley said. “You read from Ulysses and I’ll read from my monster book, then we’ll decide which one is more wicked.”
“Alright,” she consented. “But I’m skeptical.”
Lucinda read first, the period-less sentences running into each other in a way that would have been annoying had Lucinda not pantomimed the action for him:
I’d let him see my garters the new ones and make him turn red looking at him seduce him I know what boys feel–
Hadley swallowed. He could certainly see the appeal of garters, yet he remained convinced that his was the better book.
It was a stormy day, so he reached over and tugged the curtain pull, casting the room in darkness. Then he switched on the torch he’d brought along and narrowed it on the words:
I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart.
When he shone the beam on Lucinda’s face, she popped her monocle. “Give me that,” she said, grabbing the book. “What does it mean, Hadley?”
“It means that this girl with sharp teeth is about to drink this fellow’s blood and I think he wants her to do it.”
“Hadley,” she murmured in a shivery voice. “Where did you get this book?”
“Pringle’s. Should I read another passage?”
“No!” she cried. “I might swoon if you do.”
“Really?” he said hopefully.
“The floorboards aren’t safe for a book like this.”
Not in all his days had Hadley ever been so proud of himself.
Next meeting, Lucinda confessed that she could hardly read the words, they left her so breathless. “You’ll have to read them to me, Hadley. But–” she said, hugging Dracula against herself and letting the words trickle away. “I’m afraid of what will happen between us if we share such words out loud.”
Hadley knew Lucinda might only be teasing. He gulped anyway. Surely it was high time one of their wicked books inspired something wicked.
From then on, when it was dark enough, Hadley would read Dracula by torch-light. When it wasn’t dark enough, he’d speak in a gravelly whisper, so as to keep the whole thing sinister.
On the day Harker drove his Kukri knife into the Count’s throat, Hadley grew so excited, he kissed Lucinda.
For years he’d dreamed of kissing her. He could imagine himself doing it any number of ways but always, in the end, Lucinda kissed him back. Now that it was real, his lips traveled no further than the soft slope of her cheek, but Hadley kissed that cheek as though it were a fiery pair of open lips.
When it was done, Lucinda dried her face on her sleeve.
“I thought you liked this story,” he mumbled.
“I’ve other things in mind for us, Hadley.”
“Like what?” he asked, leaning his shoulder against hers.
“Hold your horses, Hadley. This is only our first time through the book.”
That night, Hadley didn’t get a wink of sleep. He couldn’t wait to read the book again.
Hadley’s favorite character was Quincey P. Morris, the slang-talking American, and he thought the hunt for Dracula was the most exciting part of the novel. Lucinda, however, wanted to read over and over again about Jonathan Harker’s encounter with the vampire brides.
“Do you suppose he likes those women, Hadley? Or is he only afraid of them?”
“Both, I’m thinking.”
Lucinda fanned her face. “Fear and passion? At the same time?”
“And don’t forget shame,” Hadley reminded. “If you ask me, Harker doesn’t seem very proud of himself for liking those brides.”
“No wonder he goes mad.”
“No wonder,” Hadley agreed. “I’d rather be Quincey.”
“Quincey?” Lucinda barked. “No one runs their teeth languorously over Quincey’s skin.”
“Yes, but Quincey has a bowie knife.”
“Oh Hadley,” Lucinda sighed. “You are a baby, aren’t you? I’m afraid I’m going to have to show you what’s really important.”
That next afternoon, Lucinda stroked the back of Hadley’s neck while he read and he wished he could read and read and read, and feel that hand on his skin forever. When he finished the last page, he closed the book, bent forward, and pressed his lips to the toe of her shoe. Slowly, fearfully, he turned his face and looked up at Lucinda.
“Read it again,” she said.
They had read the book two times so far.
Hadley celebrated his seventeenth birthday with a smooch from the new bedroom maid, a girl by the promising name of Ethel Lewse. After she spied the two locking lips, Lucinda gave Hadley a card with a picture of a woman walking a hound on a leash. It read:
Come to the attic at three a.m. to receive your special gift.
Hadley tip-toed up the butler’s stairs at exactly five till three. He planned to act like a sleep-walker, should anyone catch him prowling about.
The attic was reached by a door with a glass knob at the end of the hall, and that night the knob glowed moon-green and seemed to pulse, as did the floor and the walls and the bedroom doors. Really it must have been his own pulse though, because Hadley had never before felt so out of his depths. With a quivery hand, he reached out and turned the knob, wondering if he was about to find a violet note in the attic telling him he was too witless to be in Lucinda’s club.
Indeed, the attic did look empty. A small octagon beam of moonlight streamed across the floor. In the beam sat an old velvet lounge like the one Harker described in his journal.
“Lucinda?” he called out to the shadows. “Are you here?”
If she was present, she did not reply.
He went to the lounge and ran his hand over the spikes of ancient velvet. Dust puffed around his fingers.
Hadley took out his father’s pocket watch. It was a few minutes after three. Maybe Lucinda was having a hard time sneaking down the hall? After sitting ram-rod straight on the lounge for a spell, he leaned back and swung his feet up. Had Lucinda been caught trying to sneak upstairs, he wondered? If so, was he about to be caught too? He leapt at every little creak, but nothing came of them. He watched the dust motes suspiciously, to see if brides would appear.
Eventually, Hadley nodded off. He was lost to his dreams when something touched his leg.
His first thought was that it was a mouse. Then he was sure it was Mr. Browning. Then he was sure it was Dracula.
It was Lucinda.
Her hair hung in waves around her face and her lips looked red as red can be. He was about to ask what she put on them to make them so red when he realized that she was wearing a dressing gown with nothing underneath. Her hand was on his knee.
Something hung around her neck. It twirled and caught the moonlight, aiming it smack dab in his eyes. Hadley squinted. Beneath the dreamy trail of her hand, his muscles tensed like two-by-fours. “Lay back,” she said.
Hadley couldn’t stop looking at Lucinda. She seemed so different.
“Don’t you like me like this?” she asked.
His thigh began to tremor. “I like you,” he said, and when she touched her mouth to his, Hadley almost wept.
“You’re shaking, Hadley. Are you scared?”
Hadley wasn’t scared. He longed to grab Lucinda and pull her down on the lounge with him.
“Such wicked passion,” Lucinda clucked. “You ought to be ashamed.”
Hadley wasn’t ashamed either. He would have married Lucinda in an instant, if that’s what she wanted. But she only wanted him to want her–
Her hair tumbled down his face like tears after a dream. She licked the hollow of his throat with her tongue-tip. “Hadley,” she said, between licks. “You look good enough to eat–”
There was something in the bright blue lamp of her eyes that did, at last, put the fear of God in him. Quick as that, the necklace arced past his face and tore into his neck. It was the tiger tooth. Jesus God! he thought. She aims to kill me for kissing Ethel.
Lucinda’s mouth slid in the blood as she tried to seal the gash with her lips. Before Hadley understood what was happening, she began to draw his blood into her mouth, sucking hard and painfully.
“Stop it,” he cried, pounding on her shoulder. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.”
Lucinda sucked harder, as if she knew differently. In his mind, he saw himself pressing his forehead to hers over a good book, and his soul sagged, sickened by her betrayal.
“I know you,” she hissed, scrapping up his hair in her fist and drinking again. “You matched me breath for breath when they put their teeth on him.”
“It wasn’t real,” he told her.
“It is now.”
“You’re hurting me, Lucinda.” His body arched against the fire, until—with one great suck—he reached the other side of Hell.
And that place wasn’t Hell at all, but it’s very opposite.
Hadley was in bad shape. No matter how tightly they bandaged his throat, it split open if he moved at all.
“I might die,” he told her testily. It was the next day and they had gone into the smokehouse so Lucinda could try to stop the bleeding.
“Don’t be so dramatic, Hadley.”
“I’m dramatic? You know, most people do things differently.”
“How would you know? Anyway, we aren’t most people. Oh Hadley, just thinking about it–Have you been thinking about it?”
Heck if he could think of anything else.
A slant of sunlight squeezed in through the door, and Hadley watched Lucinda’s tongue flicker along her lip. “All this blood is making me want to do it again,” she murmured.
“We better not,” he said, but he leaned forward and kissed the spot her tongue had just wet.
Lucinda peeled back the bandage and started running her teeth up and down his neck. Hadley shook. She barely need pull but a few sips into her mouth before he fell on his knees and dropped once more into the Dark Heaven’s great abyss.
That was how he thought of it, for surely the place she brought him to could not be the Pearly Gates. God did not dwell behind such a soul-wrecking act. No, Lucinda was sending him to an eviler side of Hell. And Hadley was discovering that he liked it too much to stop her.
In the following days, his neck failed to heal because neither of them could leave it be. Lucinda said she craved him, and Hadley couldn’t help but respond to her cravings with a mix of dread and ecstasy. Eventually, things got so bad he was forced to tell his momma a complex lie about how he had fallen on a pair of garden sheers. Momma told Mr. Browning, and soon old Mangrove was summoned.
“The blood’s got to be going somewhere,” the baffled doctor mussed. He was right. It was going into Lucinda’s mouth while everyone else was asleep.
Hadley watched the little violet note spark and disappear in the grate.
Lucinda said, “I’ll keep an eye on him, Mrs. Crump, and fetch you if there’s trouble.”
Hadley let his mother leave, then turned his cheek on the pillow, prepared to die the heady and listless death of an addict.
“No,” Lucinda said. “We mustn’t do it, Hadley. I will not let you die.”
Hadley couldn’t believe his ears. “But if you don’t want me, Lucinda, I think I’d rather be dead.”
“Don’t be silly, Hadley. Of course I want you. You’re the only one like me.” She tucked the blanket up under his chin. “You just rest and do as the doctor says. So long as I don’t drink anymore, you’re sure to recover fast.”
Hadley was weak as a noodle but managed to smile anyway. “Do you like me then, Lucinda?”
“You know I do, Hadley.”
It was then that he noticed she had something hidden behind her back. “Look here, I’ve brought you a new book, darling. When you’re feeling better, we’ll read it together. Just like the others.”
She twisted her monocle into place and sighed against his ear. “It’s called The Pit and Pendulum, by Edgar Allen Poe.”