QSFer Catherine Lundoff has a new horror anthology out: “Unfinished Business.”
Unfinished Business: Tales of the Dark Fantastic features a mix of twelve short stories about ghosts, monsters, revenge, new spins on old tales, wronged women and really bad jobs by award-winning author Catherine Lundoff. (Mixed LGBTQ/other content).
Unfinished Business marks the launch of Queen of Swords Press “Mini” series. These titles will be shorter books that feature single author short story collections or novella length works, each grouped around a single theme or shared set of characters.
From “A Splash of Crimson“
Blood-red in the gaslight, a butchered beast, her dress catches my eye before she fades back into shadow, like smoke from an ill-stoked hearth. When I force myself to look at the spot where she stood a heartbeat before, there is nothing, nothing but smoke and shadow and the sense that I am being watched. I close my eyes and turn away, resisting. I will myself to see nothing, to feel nothing.
No one will give a mad governess a post. No one will give a mad governess a post. No one…
The thought trails round and round in my head until I clap my hands over my ears to try and shut it out. I can almost hear her laughing at me from the shadows and I run back down the stairs to Miss Violet’s room, seeking refuge.
But I catch myself at the door, my hand poised to knock. Miss Violet is a young lady now, ready to be launched into society. She has no real need of a governess and I am now assuming the less visible, less authoritative role of chaperon and lady’s companion with each fortnight that passes. My dismissal cannot be far behind. I must not hasten that day, must not let doubts arise as to my fitness for duty.
Sir Charles says that he has already given my references to several good families of his acquaintance. He must not doubt me. She must not question me.
No one will give a mad governess a post.
I flee for the stairs and the scant safety of my small room. A poker in the barely smoldering fire, the gas turned up, and the shadows are banished. She cannot come to me now and my heart stills, comforted by that hope. It was not always so with us. When she was alive, she was my mistress, almost, but never quite, my friend. Now, she is…she was…I close my eyes.
I drink my cold tea. I shall forget her. I shall look away when I see that flash of crimson that tells me that she is near, that she is watching. I shall use my Sunday leave to go to church. And there will be never again be any séance that includes me as an attendee. Perhaps I will ask the vicar what he thinks of spirits that linger on after death. Perhaps he has a way to banish them.
Or else, he will think me mad, overexcited, prone to hysteria. So there must be no vicar, not here. Not one who knew her when this house was hers. No one must ever know that I have seen her. No one else sees her. Only me.
I will insist that she stop appearing to me. I was nothing to her in life. She was…nothing to me. Nothing that I can speak of, now. I will banish her with the force of my will, once I summon it to do so.
If I were a Papist, I might confess, might find absolution in their rites. One of their priests might be persuaded to come to the house while the family is out and put her spirit to rest. But what, then, of the servants? One can never forget the servants. Those watching eyes and listening ears, such tales they would bear to Sir Charles! And what, then, of my references?
I fall asleep in my chair as I watch the fire die and the room grow dim. She walks through my dreams but I remember nothing but a flash of red and her face when I start awake at the distant sound of a jangling bell. Yawning maids are tumbling from their rooms to roam the house with the dawn and scrape the grates, start the fires and fetch the tea.
And today, I resolve that I will join them. I will be done with the past. I will gather myself together, determined to be as I was before, to deny her that last bit of myself that she seems to want to possess.
My dress is changed and my face is washed, all trace of night terrors wiped away when I present myself at the schoolroom for Miss Violet’s final series of lessons in deportment. By then, I have drunk my tea and eaten my crust and my hair is in place. I catch a glimpse of myself in the hall mirror as I enter the room, noting with approval the simple tidiness of my dress. I carefully avoid meeting my own eyes, knowing that they must be wild and red from broken sleep.
Miss Violet is a younger version of her mother, beautiful but light and mockingly cruel one moment, deceptively sweet and manipulative the next. I wonder if I might not be in a better light if I asked Sir Charles to dismiss me now, to set me free from this house of dust and shadows and half-glimpsed crimson gowns. But I know that he would never agree, not until her daughter is safely affianced. There are so many dangers that can beset a young lady’s reputation; I must endure and linger, abiding by my fate.
The realization that I will see my former mistress again makes me tremble, makes my heart race. But I conceal my agitation from Miss Violet. She might use it against me, coaxing favors and sweets as she did when she was younger and saw my weaknesses. Looking at her now, I can see only that she will become her mother one day, perhaps destined to haunt her children’s governess in a crimson gown.
But I must not say “haunt.” It is not a proper word for children, especially well-bred children. What if Miss Violet were to hear me say it and were to repeat it when in company? She might be mocked. My former mistress merely lingers in my imagination. She does not haunt me. I do not see her on the stairs, I do not see her in my room at night, I do not…
Miss Violet’s voice cuts through my thoughts. She wants to take the carriage and go visiting. I plead the headache, but am obliged to attend her when she disregards my feeble words. I yield to her wishes as always and change my dress. Then I fade into the wallpaper of each drawing room we visit, becoming more like a shadow myself with each passing hour. Miss Violet ignores me, all smiles and extravagant gestures while I perch on uncomfortable side chairs and listen to an endless flood of chatter about balls and dances and picnics.
Miss Violet is at the end of her mourning for her mother and all these delights are now once more open to her. I wonder if I shall ever be permitted to end my mourning for her ladyship or if she will come with me wherever I go, dogging my steps in her crimson gown. Resentment boils through me that her daughter can leave her behind so easily, but I am seemingly doomed to keep her by me forever.
Catherine Lundoff is an award-winning writer, editor and publisher from Minneapolis where she lives with her wife and the cats who own them. She is the author of over 100 published short stories and essays and nine books, including Silver Moon, Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories and Unfinished Business: Tales of the Dark Fantastic.
She has also edited or co-edited three anthologies including the multi-genre pirate anthology, Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space).