“It’s my turn to hide!” yells Hyacinth.
Sylvia shakes her head so hard, some of her red hair escapes from its ribboned ponytail. “We always do what you want. I wanna go outside and play!” she says, pointing out the large window on the landing to the cloudless morning sky.
Hyacinth crosses her arms over her pristine white apron and pouts. “I get to choose because I’m older. We stay inside!”
Sylvia rolls her eyes. “Older by a minute. And you never wanna go outside!” She stamps her boot on the black and white tiles of the front hall, the sound echoing up the stairs. “You can stay here forever, but I’m gonna see the whole world, just like Phileas Fogg! ”
Hyacinth lifts her chin. “You can’t travel without money and Mother and Father will leave it to me. Because I’m older. So you’ll stay here with me forever!” She smiles. “And if you don’t start counting, I’ll never tell you where I hid your stupid book! No more Phileas Fogg!” She turns and bounds down the wood-paneled hallway toward the back of the house, giggling as her red pigtails fly behind her.
Sylvia clenches her fists. “I will see the world!” She stomps toward the towering portrait of their scowling great-grandmother and shoves her hands in the pockets of a breakfast-stained apron. “I hate her,” she whispers. Taking a deep breath, she calls out, “One, two, three...” As soon as the tapping of her twin’s footsteps fades to nothing, she stops counting and tugs on her slouching black sock with a sigh. “She always hides in the same places. I should just go outside.” She leans against the newel post and giggles at the thought of lying in the sun-warmed grass all day while Hyacinth is stuck inside a dark, stuffy trunk.
A series of loud bangs reverberate through the hall, wrenching Sylvia from her daydream. Across the hall, a workman is pulling his head from inside the wall, the ornate wood panel resting precariously against a delicate antique table. He stands and tosses a hammer into his toolbox with a clink, wiping his hands on a rag. Heading to the back of the house, he smiles and winks at Sylvia as he passes. She glares at the floor and sullenly toes the stair tread. Whenever the workman is around, he always gapes at Hyacinth and Sylvia like they’re Siamese twins in a curiosity show. Even worse, he leaves nasty cigarette ends all over the grass. When she can no longer hear his heavy boots clomping, she moves to the wall opening, crouches down, and sticks her head inside. It reminds her of the crawl space under the attic stairs where she and Hyacinth dragged the old steamer trunk so they’d have a quiet place to play. She grabs the edges of the wall to lean in a bit further.
“Ow!” She jerks back her hand and pulls a large splinter out of her palm. Blood wells up and she wipes it on her apron with a grimace, leaving a swath of crimson next to a pink smear of strawberry jam. When more blood seeps from the wound, she wipes it again while looking around for something to use as a bandage. She grabs the rag from the top of the toolbox. “There’s so many tools!” she says, her hand momentarily forgotten. She picks one up before stopping to glance around the hall with a shiver. I’ll be in so much trouble if they catch me, she thinks. With no one in sight, she quickly stuffs it into her pocket with a smile. It clinks against a large brass key and several colorful glass marbles. She walks to the center of the hall and calls out, “Ready or not, Hyacinth, here I come!”
The early afternoon sun is shining in through the landing window by the time Sylvia comes back to the front hall. The wood panel is still leaning against the table with no sign of the workman. Leaving more cigarette ends on the nice grass, she thinks. She yells as loud as she can, “Ok, Hyacinth, you win!” her voice echoing through the house. A maid passing by frowns and shushes her. Sylvia waits until she’s out of sight before yelling, “Come out, I’m done with this dumb game!” She stands with her hands on her hips for several minutes, but Hyacinth doesn’t appear. Throwing up her hands, she yells, “Fine! Stay there!” before stomping upstairs.
She stands in the doorway of their bedroom and scans the room. Dashing to the dresser she and Hyacinth share, she reaches her whole arm underneath. She finds a dusty sock and a frayed green hair ribbon before pulling out a book with a triumphant grin. She always hides my stuff here, she thinks, shaking her head. She tucks her well-worn copy of Around the World in Eighty Days under her arm and heads out to the front yard. Crunching down the white gravel path, she veers off toward a towering elm tree. She frowns at the cigarette ends littered around the roots, one of which is still smoldering, before climbing up to her favorite branch near a hollow.
As the shadows lengthen and the cicadas fall quiet, a maid stands under the tree and calls up, “Dinner time, Miss Sylvia. Where’s Miss Hyacinth?” Sylvia shrugs her shoulders and climbs down. The maid looks her up and down with a frown and says, “A young lady shouldn’t be climbing trees. And what happened to your apron? Go get cleaned up before your mother sees you!”
When Sylvia enters the dining room, Mother glances at her and says, “You’re late, your pinafore is wrinkled, and your socks are falling down.”
“Sorry, Mother.” She smooths down her fresh apron and straightens her socks.
Mother sighs. “Where is your sister?”
“We were playing hide and seek after breakfast. I couldn’t find her,” Sylvia says with a shrug.
Father peers over the top of his newspaper and raises an eyebrow. “She finally found a spot where even you couldn’t find her? That’s my girl!” he chuckles.
Mother shakes her head, her delicate emerald and diamond earrings glittering in the candlelight. “Even so, it’s not like Hyacinth to be late.” She pulls off her long white gloves and glides into the hall. Gently calling up the stairs, she says, “Hyacinth, it’s time for dinner. Come down now.” When Hyacinth doesn’t come down, she frowns and begins tapping her toe; Sylvia mentally winces as each click echoes through the hall and into her skull. Mother slaps her gloves against her palm as she moves to the bottom step, her eyes narrowing. “Hyacinth Evelyn Jeffries, you’re going to be in trouble if you don’t come here right this moment!”
When Hyacinth still doesn’t appear, Father steps into the hall and says, “Calm yourself, my dear.” Turning to Sylvia, he asks, “You haven’t seen her since this morning?” She shakes her head.
“Let’s gather the servants and have them search the house and grounds for her. I’m sure she’s just off playing a game and didn’t notice the time,” he says patting Mother’s hand.
Mother nods and says, “Sylvia, eat quickly and then get ready for bed. No arguments!” She slaps her gloves against her palm and Sylvia dashes into the dining room.
Sylvia paces around the bedroom in her nightgown, her bare feet silently padding across the red wool carpet; she can’t sleep with everyone yelling for Hyacinth inside and out. When the house finally grows quiet, she sneaks out of her room and tiptoes to the landing. Mother and Father are in the hall below. Crouching in the shadows, she watches them from behind the thick wooden spindles of the banister, each quiet word echoing up to her.
“Where could she have gone?” says Mother as she wrings her handkerchief, her knuckles white.
“I don’t know.” Father closes his eyes and rubs the bridge of his nose. “I wonder if Sylvia’s been a bad influence. She’s always getting into trouble and forever talking about seeing the world.” He leans towards Mother and says softly, “Maybe she encouraged Hyacinth to run away.” Sylvia frowns and leans closer.
Mother shakes her head. “No! Hyacinth would never run away. She’s such a good girl.” She chews her lip. “Do you think something terrible happened? Some strange man could have grabbed her and-”
Father raises his hand, cutting Mother off. “Sylvia? I can see you lurking. Come downstairs.”
Sylvia slowly walks down and stands in front of them. “Eavesdropping is very rude,” says Father.
Staring at the ground, Sylvia mumbles, “Sorry.”
“Where are your robe and slippers? And what did you do to your hand?” Mother says pointing to the large scab on her palm.
“I cut it playing.”
Mother sighs. “It’s so disappointing. I thought twins would act the same, but you’re really nothing alike.” Sylvia flinches.
Mother wrings her handkerchief so hard it creaks. “What could have happened to our beautiful girl?” Sylvia tugs at Mother’s sleeve but she frowns and brushes her off. “Go back upstairs. It’s past your bedtime,” says Mother.
“But-” Father pushes Sylvia toward the stairs, shushing her. He rings a small silver bell and asks the maid that appears to take Sylvia upstairs and put her to bed.
“Maybe it was the workman!” Sylvia says quickly.
Mother and Father both turn to look at her. Father sighs and tilts his head toward the stairs. “No more fantastic stories. Go to bed.”
The maid takes Sylvia by the hand and starts pulling her up the stairs. Sylvia digs in her heels and yanks her hand away. “It’s not a story! He was in the hall when we were playing. He followed Hyacinth to the back of the house and I didn’t see either of them after that,” says Sylvia. Mother and Father look at each other. “If it wasn’t him, why couldn’t I find her? I always find her.”
Mother’s eyes open wide as she grabs at Father’s arm. He nods and says, “I think we should speak with the police.”
Sylvia crunches along the white gravel path that meanders under stately elm trees up to the wide granite steps of her family home. Tilting her head back, she squints in the bright sunlight. The shape and feel of the house hasn’t changed, though the once crimson shutters are faded, the paint peeling in a few places. Unlocking the doors and stepping inside the cavernous front hall, she takes a deep breath. The long-forgotten smells of wood polish and old wool carpeting give rise to a dizzying array of memories that tingle in the back of her head.
Ducking between the moving crates and sheet-covered furniture, she steps into Father’s study. On the old mahogany desk, there are two small wooden boxes. Opening one, Sylvia finds the legal papers regarding the house and finances. Nodding, she sets it aside. Frowning at the other, she lifts the lid and finds a pile of yellowing newspaper clippings. She picks one off the top and holds it up to the waning afternoon light.
Local Man Sentenced to Death for Heinous Murder
Joseph Stanley Allen, a local carpenter, has been found guilty in the kidnapping and murder of a ten-year-old girl. On April 18th, the child disappeared from her home where Mr. Allen was working. Neither he nor the child were seen between the hours of nine and eleven o’clock in the morning. The murder weapon, a small ball-peen hammer, was found in a nearby tree, along with a blood-covered apron belonging to the child. The child’s body has not been recovered. The judge has sentenced Mr. Allen to death by hanging.
Sylvia crumples the clipping and drops it on the floor. Since Hyacinth’s body was never found, their parents never gave up hope that she could still come bounding up the front steps into their waiting arms. Although Sylvia was still very much alive, they took great pains to remind her daily that she was a poor imitation of her twin. She bided her time making meticulous plans and scouring geography, history, and language books. On October second of her sixteenth year, she took all of Mother’s jewelry and booked a ticket on the first steamer to Liverpool; from there, she headed off to Egypt and many other places around the world. She only came home when she learned her parents had died and, as Hyacinth had never returned, she’d inherited the fortune and house.
There’s just one more thing she needs to do before selling the house and severing her last connection to those people. She picks up a candle and climbs the back stairs to the servant’s quarters at the top floor. With all the doors closed, the clicking of her heeled-boots on the wood reverberates down the silent hallway like rifle shots. Sylvia smirks. In the week following Hyacinth’s disappearance, several servants quit, complaining of strange noises at all hours of the day and night. They whispered behind their hands that it was Hyacinth’s ghost wandering the house and slept with their doors locked tight. “Good thing they were always such a superstitious lot,” Sylvia says with a laugh.
Near the door to the attic stairs, she kneels down in front of the wall. Putting her fingertips into the corners of a wood panel, she pries it away, exposing a crawl space. Tucking her short red hair behind her ears, she lights the candle and crawls inside. Turning away from the stairs, she heads to the far back wall, ducking under spider webs and wooden beams. There, she finds a pile of thick blankets painted with years of dust and debris from the aging house. Pulling them away, reveals a large brown steamer trunk. She takes a brass key from her jacket pocket and opens the heavy lock, the click muffled in the small, dusty space. Lifting the lid, she brings the candle closer. With her finger, she traces the marks gouged into the wood on the inside. She smiles as she pries out a small fingernail. “I told you I’d see the world,” she says.
Written by ExRwood