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“Bound by Duty” by Christine Makepeace
“Sir,” she coughed, phlegm rattling around in her chest. “I hate to ask, but may I be dismissed early? I’m feeling quite unwell.”
“Hmm?” Johnson T. Somersby grunted, a newspaper obscuring his pasty face.
“I said, I’m feeling unwell, sir. And I’d be grateful for an early dismissal.”
Somersby raised an eyebrow and lowered his paper. “Is something wrong, Mrs. Grose?” he hissed impatiently.
“It’s just that I’m feeling ill, sir, and I’d like—”
“You’d like what?” he boomed. “To abandon me on what is likely one of the biggest, most important days of my life?”
“Oh no, sir. I’d never think of abandoning you. I just wish—”
“You wish to leave me in the lurch, is that right? On a day like today? Why, who will make my dinner? Who will see to the washing and the gardening and the mail? Who, Mrs. Grose?”
“Why, the remainder of the staff, sir. I’ve given Ms. Peachtree instruction—”
“Let me stop you there, Mrs. Grose. You are charged with completing these duties. They are your responsibility. Peachtree,” he spat, “Why, I wouldn’t trust her to fix my tea!”
“But sir, Ms. Peachtree is adept at—”
“No, I won’t hear anything else about it. Take a pill and get back to work. Alert me of any calls as soon as they come in. Especially if they’re from the firm.”
“Certainly, sir,” Grose muttered, head bowed and forehead sweat-slicked.
“You’re dismissed,” Somersby roared, bulging eyes back on his paper.
“Um, sir, may I lie down for a moment before dinner? I’m so dreadfully weak…”
Somersby slapped the newspaper back down on his desk. “Grose, how long have you worked for the family? 10 years? 15?”
“30, sir. I’ve been employed by the Somersbys for three decades.”
“Three whole decades,” he mused while absently stroking his bulbous chin. “After that long, I’d expect you’d be clear about the way things work around here. You oversee the household. I don’t care if you’re tired, sick, depressed, or dead! I compensate you for a job, and I demand you do it.” He brushed a smattering of crumbs from his suit jacket and reclined in his plush leather chair. “Do you understand, Mrs. Grose?”
The woman nodded weakly, her cheeks a burning red. “I understand,” she replied before shuffling out of the office.
“The nerve!” Somersby exclaimed, finally free to return to his reading. “The death of the work ethic is upon us.”
Hours later, a maid arrived with his dinner, a gleaming silver dome covering the plate.
“Will that be all, sir?” the young woman asked as she backed out of the room.
“Yes, yes. Fine,” he muttered impatiently. “Actually, Marnie?”
“It’s Millicent, sir,” she stuttered, quickly adding, “What can I do for you?”
“I’m still waiting to hear from the firm. Can you tell Mrs. Grose I need to speak with her?”
“Oh, sir,” Millicent frowned. “Mrs. Grose went home about an hour ago. She looked absolutely dreadful. She nearly fell down the stairs! If Mr. Stepford hadn’t caught her—”
“She went home?” he interrupted. “Are you telling me she left? When I explicitly told her not to?”
“Sir, she wasn’t well. She was teetering about the kitchen with the nastiest cough. Her skin was a dreadful color and Ms. Peachtree—”
“I truly could not care less about any of this superfluous, and frankly boring, information, Marnie. Have someone competent call Mrs. Grose’s home and tell her I demand to see her in my office by 9 a.m. sharp.”
“Uh, yes, sir,” Millicent replied before taking her leave.
Somersby gazed out the window at his sprawling estate. His finger tapped anxiously against his fine oak desk. “I live a simple life,” he said to no one in particular. “I only wish that all were as reliable as I.” With a sigh, he lifted the sparkling dome and dug sloppily into the feast before him.
Somersby lost himself in paperwork, only lifting his head when he heard soft footsteps fall across the rich, crimson carpeting. “Yes, what is it, Stepford? Are you here with my tea?” he asked, glancing at the clock. “It’s a bit late, isn’t it? I should’ve been served ages ago, why wasn’t…wait, where’s my tea?” he pouted.
Stepford, hands clasped together with not a drop of tea in sight, exhaled tightly. “Sir, I have some delicate, and tragic, news to deliver,” he offered solemnly.
“Oh, God! The firm! They called, didn’t they? Is the deal off? Did they say why? Dear God, man, tell me!”
“Sir, it’s Mrs. Grose, sir. Well, she’s…she’s passed, sir.”
“Sir, Mrs. Grose is dead.”
“Dead?” he exclaimed. “Dead? Why that’s ghastly news! Simply dreadful! It’s going to be a nightmare to replace her! Honestly, Stepford, couldn’t you have waited until tomorrow to tell me? Now I’ll be wildly distracted all night. How thoughtless of you,” he scolded. “Honestly, how thoughtless of her. She knew it was a big day for me.” Somersby shook his head ruefully.
“Sir?” Stepford asked, face screwed tight. “Should we have flowers sent to her widower?”
“Yes, sir. Mr. Grose? Her husband?”
“Why would I do a thing like that?” Somersby’s gaze slid down to the pile of papers scattered before him. His pen tapped out an inconsistent, lazy rhythm—a flagging heartbeat.
“She spent half her life in your employ,” Stepford continued. “She was your most devoted servant.”
“Has the firm called?” Somersby interrupted. Stepford shook his head “no.” “Fine. I’ll take my tea in bed. Have it sent up quickly. I’m in no mood to suffer any dilly-dallying.”
“Very well, sir,” Stepford conceded drearily before retreating from the office.
Somersby dressed for bed without the aid of his staff. He sent an order, through a maid whose name he couldn’t recall, that he was not to be bothered. Unless it was with news from the firm. “And Mrs. Grose?” the girl had asked. He’d replied with a snarl, and she’d scurried from the room. “How dare they,” he mumbled through a yawn. “How dare they force me to think of such unpleasantness. And right before bed!” Somersby yanked his cumbersome goose down comforter up to his chin and quickly descended into sleep.
An eager pounding on his chamber door roused him. Hazy sunlight streamed through a gap in the blinds, and the clock on his bedside table read 9:00 a.m. He grumbled sleepily. “Why didn’t someone wake me sooner?” He clambered to his feet, silk dressing gown sliding over rich satin sheets. “Is it the firm?” he called.
The pounding came again, harder this time, more insistent. He pulled on a heavy velvet robe—a gift from his late mother—and stumbled to the door. “Is it the firm?” he asked again before throwing it open.
In the threshold stood Mrs. Grose. Her graying hair was stringy and loose around her waxen face. Her eyes were as black as blood in the moonlight. Her lips were blue, like a robin’s egg on Easter.
Somersby gasped, a meaty paw flying up to cover his mouth.
Undeterred by his clear distress, Mrs. Grose pushed into the well-appointed bedroom as though she belonged there. Her stance was wobbly, unbalanced and shaky, a doe taking its first steps. Her head twisted from side to side in search of…something. She toddled over to a small wooden desk, her clenched fingers awkwardly grabbing for the ornate silver letter opener. She held it, assessed its weight.
All while Somersby just watched. “This is a dream,” he muttered wildly. “This is a dream and you’re dead!” he yelled at the frail female form in front of him. “You’re dead, woman!”
Mrs. Grose shook her head. “Sir,” she slurred, her voice raspy. “Sir, it’s my duty to open the mail, and I would never abandon you.” She lunged then, her entire weight rocketing forward as she thrust the letter opener out in front of her. It caught Somersby by surprise, the tip of the tool sliding into his spongy gut. He wailed, jumping back in search of distance and safety.
“Sir, I would never abandon you,” she moaned, lumbering forward. “Let me help you.”
The thing that was once Mrs. Grose lunged again, this time tangling her fingers in Somersby’s robe. With a sharp tug, it fell to the floor. “What is the meaning of this?” he howled, twisting to get away, retreating further into the bedroom.
“Let me help you,” she repeated, wet and low.
“Get away from me!” His arms flailed violently. “Get away. Leave this place!”
But Mrs. Grose pressed on, arms outstretched and eager. “Sir, I would never abandon you,” she promised.
Somersby cowered by his bed, hands in front of his face as though that would be enough to protect him.
Mrs. Grose was not cowed. With strength born from a lifelong pledge of duty, she ripped off his sleeping gown. He stood before her naked and bleeding; his stomach wound wept softly. “Let me help you,” she implored, sinewy fingers poking at Somersby’s bare midsection. He let out a sharp yelp as she dug her nails in. “Let me help you.”
Somersby’s yelps turned into a bloodcurdling scream as Mrs. Grose slipped her fingers beneath his skin. She tugged hard, like she was making the bed, and he crumpled to the floor.
“Sir, I would never abandon you,” she mumbled, a strip of pink flesh hanging from her unsightly indigo lips.
From somewhere deep in the house, a phone rang. With wild, panicked eyes, Somersby thrashed. His legs kicked desperately as viscous fluid collected in the holes gouged out of his gut. Mrs. Grose rocked back on her heels, eyes closed as she slurped down another piece of him.
With a pained shout, Somersby managed to get himself upright. He stumbled through his suite with a speed he’d never before adopted, flinging himself across the threshold and into the hall. His bloody feet slid on the perfectly polished wood, and he struggled to stay upright. The phone trilled out again. “The firm” he groaned, reaching toward the device that lay just out of reach, on a small table at the top of the stairs.
He hurled himself toward it, bare feet gliding like ice skates on a freshly frozen lake. He tossed a glance over his shoulder and began to laugh manically when he saw no sign of the ghoulish Mrs. Grose. But the victory was short-lived. Somersby faltered, a strange pressure licking at his gut. His gaze shot down, searching for the source.
Crimson clots and holes lay before him, as did the deep laceration made by the letter opener. From that gash poured a mix of dark liquid and Somersby’s innards. Syrupy chunks fell to his feet while his clumsy fingers attempted to push them back inside. But it was too late; nothing could stop his intestines from snaking out the gaping hole. The organ hung limply from his gut, slowly slithering downward. The phone rang again, and Somersby lurched for it. He lost his balance immediately, the blood too slick for his weakened state. He tried to remain upright, but his foot tangled in the meat that dangled from his body, and he tripped.
Somersby careened down the stairs, his nude body leaving a trail of murky viscera in its wake. The master of the house lay sprawled on the decorative tile, his insides glistening in the sun. “Help,” he groaned as the phone rang out, an unheard plea to whomever was on the other end. His sticky fingers groped the air, his fluids pattered against the floor. “Help…”
“Let me help you,” Mrs. Grose implored as she lumbered down the stairs after him. Her eyes were hungry with adoration. “Sir, I would never abandon you,” she pledged as she stooped to dip her fingers inside him.
The phone rang again, but Johnson T. Somersby couldn’t hear it, for the sound of Mrs. Grose’s unencumbered feasting was much too loud.
Christine Makepeace is a film essayist and fiction writer living in the Pacific Northwest. Her work can be found at christinemakepeace.com
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