A story

When I’m not job hunting, reading novels or dissecting fashion magazines, I sometimes write. Most recently, I revised a short (short-short?) story I wrote in college. It is, I hope, about the power of a good story and the thin line between fantasy and reality. If you like Jane Eyre, or even if you’ve never read it, you will hopefully like this.

Click through to read.

Lily and Jane

In the fog, time seemed to stand still. Lily pressed her nose against the glass of the carriage window and stared at the seemingly endless, unchanging landscape. The ride from Gateshead to Lowood had been so long that Lily thought she must be stuck in some sort of limbo, broken only by the occasional bump of the carriage over a rut in the road. She knew the carriage had to be moving, that she had passed fields, forests and towns, but she couldn’t make out any detail in the thick, grey fog. She was just about asleep against a thin, dusty pillow when the carriage jolted to a stop and she sat up, banging her elbow against the carriage door.

Lily pushed the door open and stepped into the chilly early-morning air, wrapping her threadbare shawl ever more tightly around her shoulders. The driver – an elderly man of the grey, un-talkative sort – dropped Lily’s battered trunk on the ground next to her, climbed back into the carriage and drove away without so much as a goodbye. Lily craned her eyes trying to get a closer look at the long, low buildings in front of her, when a girl dressed as a servant emerged from the fog.

“Are you Jane Eyre?” she asked.

“Yes,” Lily said.

The servant girl beckoned another servant out of the fog. While the second picked up Lily’s trunk, the first started to march up a cobblestone path towards the nearest building. Lily waited a moment for another instruction – a word, perhaps, or a wave – but when nothing came, she followed the two servant girls up the path, into the building and then into a small parlor room boasting three worn velveteen armchairs and a small fire, the only light in the room.

As Lily stretched her numb fingers over the fire, two women entered, one tall and pretty, the other shorter, plainer, but with a kind expression in her pale eyes. The tall woman walked over to Lily and looked her up and down.

“Humph,” she said. “Are you tired?”

“Yes,” Lily said.

“And hungry too, I bet.” She looked thoughtful. “Well, Jane, I hope you will be a good girl while you’re here.” It was more of a declaration than a question.

Lily nodded, and was led out of the parlor by the shorter woman (who Lily came to find was named Mrs. Miller) and through seemingly endless crooked corridors until they reached the dining hall.

The dining hall was a wide, low room with a sloping ceiling and identical, uncomfortable benches flanking narrow tables. Candles were scattered around the tabletops, dripping wax on the dark wood. Girls from seven to 16 sat unmoving in brown dresses and starched pinafores. Each tightly-plaited head was bent over a book.

Mrs. Miller left Lily at the door and walked to the middle of the hall. She clapped her hands and cried, “Monitors, get the dinner trays!” Immediately, six of the oldest girls jumped out of their seats and disappeared through a white door, to return almost immediately bearing pitchers of water and trays of what seemed to be oat biscuits. Lily sat down at the nearest table and reached for the water glass in front of her, suddenly very thirsty.

“Lily, you need to take this.”

The voice was calm, but any attempts at gentleness were belied by a tone that sounded like it could cut glass. Lily looked up from her water to find the source of the voice, and was confronted by a woman in a white skirt, blouse and cap. Her features were oddly blurred. The woman grabbed Lily’s hand and placed a blue pill in the center of Lily’s palm. “You need to swallow this, that’s a good girl,” the faceless woman said.

The woman turned to go as Lily smiled and nodded. Once she had gone, Lily slipped the blue pill into the pocket of her dress. She looked around at the other girls, smiled truly, and picked up her water glass and drained its contents.

* * *

Lily poked her head around the dormitory door and peered up and down the long hallway. No one was there. Pleased, she slipped out the door and pulled her sweater over her shoulders. The stone floor was cold against Lily’s bare feet, but she didn’t care. She had to see Helen – poor, sick Helen – one last time.

Lily bit her lip to keep from crying out when she stepped on a jagged edge of a floor tile. Luckily, the teachers and students went to bed before 10 p.m. – the agonizingly early wake-up call necessitated it. Once Lily reached the infirmary – also known as Miss Temple’s apartments – she looked around one more time and eased the door open. Miss Temple was nowhere to be seen, but Lily spotted Helen immediately, asleep in a small cot next to a narrow window pained with rippled glass. She crept to the side of bed and prodded Helen in the shoulder.

“Helen, are you awake?”

Helen stirred, opened her eyes and pushed her mousy-brown hair out of her face. “Jane, is that you?” she asked. “Come get under the covers, it’s cold.”

Helen moved to one edge of the cot and Lily climbed in, wrapping the quilt around her bare feet.

“How are you feeling?” Lily asked.

Helen sighed, then smiled. “I am going to God,” she said.

Lily was puzzled. “How do you know? Where is God?”

“I know I’ll see him when I die – I’ll find him then.”

“Will…will I see you, Helen, when I die?”

Helen reached across the quilt and took Lily’s hand. “Jane, I am sure I’ll see you again. But tonight, will you stay with me?”

“Of course,” Lily said, and snuggled further under the quilt. Helen kissed Lily on the cheek, and they both soon fell asleep.

The next morning, Lily woke up alone. She stared at the depression in Helen’s pillow. Even before Miss Temple came in to tell her, Lily knew that Helen was dead.

Lily ignored Miss Temple’s anxious questions about her own health. She pushed herself out of bed and, in a daze, stumbled out of the infirmary, through the stone corridors still cold against her feet and out into the school’s vegetable garden. Beyond the whitewashed fence, Lily could see a mound of freshly dug earth. Helen’s grave.

Lily felt strangely empty. She walked to Helen’s grave and sat, staring at the dirt and yet unmarked stone.

“Get me Thorazine, 50 milligrams.”

Dimly, Lily noticed blurred figures in white hurrying toward her. She curled on her knees, staining her nightdress on the wet grass.

“Hold her down, stop her from struggling. She needs to take her medicine. Nurse, grab her arm and hold her down.”

“I’m trying – she keeps fighting me.”

Lily struggled and kicked as tears ran down her cheeks. Why wouldn’t they leave her alone? Helen had just died. Died! Lily didn’t want to go to class; she didn’t want to eat. She just wanted to stay with Helen a little longer – was that so hard to understand? One of the figures forced something hard and horrid-tasting into Lily’s mouth. She spat it out and swiped her hand at the oddly featureless face looming above her. She screwed up her eyes and screamed.

“Ouch, damn it! Why haven’t you cut her nails? I think she drew blood.”

“She spat out the pill Dr. Richards; she won’t take it.”

“Go get another one. We’ll force it down her throat if we have to.”

* * *

“The episodes are getting worse, Dr. Richards. Yesterday, when I asked her if she had to go to the bathroom, she yelled that she belonged at some place called Lowood – whatever that is – and refused to leave her bed. She was reading Jane Eyre again.”

“Why don’t you just take that damn book away from her? Don’t you remember what happened when she finished Kim? She was caught trying to sneak out, said she had to go to India.”

“Yes, but we managed to calm her down and convince her that going to India was not a good idea. But now, she’s saying that she belongs in Jane Eyre. Not that she wants to go to England, but that she actually belongs in the book.”

“So take the book away.”

“I can’t. Nurse Jasper tried that last week. Once Lily stopped screaming, she just sat on her bed and didn’t move. She wouldn’t eat until Nurse Jasper gave the book back to her.”

Dr. Richards sighed. “She needs to realize that books are not a substitution for reality. It’s not a game she can play, skipping from one imaginary world to the next.”

They stopped at the door to Lily’s room and peered into the small window.

“No,” said Lady Ingram, with a patronizing look at Lily. “She looks too stupid for this game.”

Lily bit her lip and retreated further into the window seat, twisting the heavy drapes around her fingers. But rather than respond – and risk getting fired from her governess position – Lily kept quiet and watched the group continue their game of charades.

Though one team was able to guess the first part of the charade – the word ‘bride’ garnered from a scene of a wedding – they were having trouble with the second half. Blanche Ingram wrapped a red scarf around her shoulders and dipped a pitcher into a bucket of water that was placed on the floor a minute earlier. Mr. Rochester, with a grey scarf over his head, pointed to the pitcher and was rewarded with a drink. Lily knew the word was ‘well’ – maybe she wasn’t so stupid after all – but the guessing team still didn’t get it. The scene was reset to give the team a second chance. Rochester, still with the scarf over his head, wrapped chains around his wrists and kneeled on the floor. As he lifted his head and glared out the window, Colonel Dent clapped his hands.

“Bridewell!” he said, and stood to accept his teammates’ congratulations.

As the other team took their places to act out the next charade, Blanche turned to Rochester with a flirtatious smile on her face. “You know,” she said, “I liked you best as a prisoner. You would have made a dashing gentleman bandit.”

Rochester grinned. “So you like a rogue, then.”

“I do. You could only be better if you were a pirate.”

“Well, better take me as I am. Remember, we were married fifteen minutes ago.”

Blanche giggled, and Lily suddenly felt sick. She ducked behind the drapes to hide her red face and wet eyes.

“She’s crying. Why is she crying?”

“A sad part? I don’t know, I’ve never read it.”

* * *

Rochester ushered Lily through the squeaky churchyard gate and up the path to the small, whitewashed church. Lily fidgeted with the laces of her white dress as she and Rochester approached the altar. She felt uncomfortable in such a fancy dress, like she didn’t deserve to wear silk. She greatly preferred her plain, dark wool dresses, but Rochester had insisted. He wanted her to wear something more suitable to her new station, and told her she looked beautiful, so she agreed.

A priest and the clerk were waiting in front of the small altar. The pews were dotted with a person or two here and there, but Lily’s gaze took in more empty spaces than people. Once Lily and Rochester took their places by the altar, the priest turned to address the sparse audience.

“Is there any reason why these two should not be wed?” he asked, scanning the few faces in front of him. He paused for a moment, as is customary, but no one answered, so he turned to Rochester. “Do you take this woman to be your wedded wife?”

Just as Rochester opened his mouth to answer, a voice from the back of the church cut him off.

“Those two cannot get married.”

Everyone in the church turned to stare at the interrupting newcomer. Rochester’s face was stony. The priest, though annoyed at the late objection, sighed. “Proceed,” he said.

The speaker squared his shoulders. “Rochester already has a wife. Bertha Rochester. I saw her last April at Thornfield Hall – I’m her brother,” he added hastily.

The few audience members erupted with cries of surprise. Rochester turned to the priest and started to argue that Bertha was mad, that their marriage wasn’t true to begin with, not in the eyes of the law or the eyes of God. Lily heard scraps of Rochester’s explanation, but mostly the combined voices just buzzed in her ears. She knew it was too good to be true.

The small wedding party beat a hasty retreat from the church and started the return walk to Thornfield, Bertha’s brother spitting out reason after reason why Rochester and Bertha’s marriage was legal. Lily, trailing behind, eyed the hills behind Thornfield. She couldn’t stay here anymore, not when Rochester was married to a woman kept in the attic. She paused, contemplating how she could escape, when a hand closed, vise-like, around her arm. She whirled around, expecting Rochester, expecting an apology, but saw a face she did not recognize.

“What are you doing?” she asked, desperate. “I have to go.”

“You’re not going anywhere. You are going to stop hiding your Thorazine and do exactly as I say,” said the face.

“But Rochester – he has a wife! A wife in the attic. I can’t stay at Thornfield – I have to go!”

“Lily, you aren’t at Thornfield. Thornfield doesn’t exist.”

“What?”

“You’re here in the hospital.” The voice sounded both aggravated and patient. “Not in Thornfield, ok? You’re here, and it’s time to take your medicine.”

Another blurred figure grabbed Lily’s free arm and twisted it around, pinning her wrists together behind her.

“No!” She screamed and kicked at her assailants. “Let me go! I have to go.”

“You,” said the face, “aren’t going anywhere.”

The two figures pinned her to the ground. Lily felt something sting her arm, and Thornfield faded from view.

* * *

The light assaulting Lily’s eyelids was harsh and bright. She groaned and rolled over, and scrubbed at her eyes with her fists. She blinked a few times, expecting to find herself on a hill somewhere between Thornfield and the town of Whitcross. But instead of damp grass and grey sky, she saw something white and rumpled. Sheets – white, rumpled sheets. And the uncomfortable surface she was lying on was a bed, not grass. A small bed, with a thin mattress, surrounded on each side by metal guardrails. Was she trapped in the attic? Trapped like Bertha? No – she had left Thornfield. She knew she had left; she could see Rochester’s stricken face as she told him she had to leave. Lily blinked again, then looked about the room.

The floor was pale blue tile, worn almost white in places from repetitive pacing. There was no rug. One door, with a window that reminded Lily of the arrow slits placed into castle battlements, seemed to lead to a hallway. Another door, right across from the bed, was marked ‘Bathroom.’ There was a small, open closet next to this door. The only furniture besides the bed consisted of a small, red seat underneath the window that looked out over a parking lot, and an overstuffed red armchair. A haphazard pile of paperback novels sat on the floor next to the window seat; Lily could recite the plot of each from memory. A small picture of Lily and two older people – she assumed they were her parents, as they came to visit once every week – stood propped up against a white lamp on the bedside table. There was no other decoration.

Lily put a hand onto the bed to steady herself. She felt something worn and fuzzy under her fingers, and turned to find a small stuffed dog with a missing eye and a purple bow around its neck. She picked it up and hugged it close to her chest, her eyes traveling around the room once more. It was horrible. She couldn’t understand how this room, this reality, as the figures in white kept insisting, was a fit place to live. Some place so white, so sterile, could not be real. Thornfield was real. Ferndean, with its overgrown trees and creaky floorboards, was real. It was something you could see and smell and touch, a place you could breathe. In this white, lifeless room, breathing was impossible. She had to get out.

Lily tried the handle to the door with the arrow-slit window. It was locked. The small window over the red seat was locked as well. She cast about helplessly for a moment, then sank back onto the bed. She was locked in, but there had to be some way to get out of this horrible room. Turning, Lily saw Jane Eyre lying on the bed, just poking out from under the thin pillow. She picked it up and smiled, seeing her bookmark still in place. Lily adjusted herself until she sat cross-legged on the bed, the stuffed dog under her arm and Jane Eyre in her hands. As she opened to page she marked, Rochester’s voice rang in her ears.

“Jane, Jane, Jane!”

Lily bent over the book until her nose touched the page.

“Wait for me – I’m coming!”

* * *

Two granite pillars loomed out of a thicket of trees and over Lily’s head. They flanked a large, slightly rusty wrought iron gate that sat slightly ajar, as if it was beckoning her inside. She pushed the gate further open and slipped through, narrowly avoiding snagging her plain wool dress on the rusty latch.

Amidst the gathering evening gloom, Lily could just make out a small grassy path stretched out in front of her, rutted with recent carriage tracks. She squinted into the dark, trying to make out any shape besides that of the towering trees. She couldn’t. Lily pulled the gate closed and followed the path, twisting and turning until, certain that she had lost her way, she noticed that the grassy path had suddenly turned into gravel. Her spirits slightly higher, she continued walking until the path ended at a large wooden house.

The house. The Ferndean Rochester often talked about, and occasionally visited during hunting season. Its location in the middle of a large, tangled forest made it impossible to rent out, but Rochester kept it anyway, claiming he liked the peace and quiet when he was able to visit. The house itself was old and shabby, its walls a musty grey. The gravel path continued in a semi circle in front of the house, outlining a patch of bare grass. There were no flowers, no bushes; the only ornamentation came from the impossibly tall trees. Nothing moved. Lily’s gaze moved over the house and the path. Stiffening her resolve, she walked up the one step and knocked on the narrow front door.

The man who answered the door was not one of Rochester’s servants. He was of middling height and thin, with dark hair that looked ruffled, as if he had been running his hands through it in frustration. He wore a white coat and had some sort of metal contraption looped around his neck. Lily squinted at the man, trying to make out his slightly blurred features.

“Please go in,” Lily said, “and tell your master someone is here to see him. But don’t mention my name.”

The man shook his head. “No master, Lily. No one is here.”

“Mr. Rochester is here! Tell him I’ve come. And my name is Jane,” Lily added, her eyes narrowed.

“That’s it. Lily, you are coming with me.”

“No. I have to go inside, I have to see Mr. Rochester!”

“Rochester doesn’t exist. None of this exists.” He left the doorway and stepped towards her. “I am going to give you your Thorazine, and all of this will disappear.”

“I don’t want this to disappear,” Lily said, edging closer to the door. “I want to stay. I am going to stay.”

“Lily…”

“My name is Jane,” she said firmly, then dashed inside and shut the narrow door, locking it behind her. She ran into the next room – a small, dark sitting room – and looked out the window, half hidden by a thick, silky curtain. The man in white, his blurry features arranged in an expression that somewhat resembled anger, grabbed the old-fashioned brass doorknob and tried to turn it as sharply as he could. After a few more tries at the doorknob, a kick to the door and a few choice words, the man in white spun around, walked down the single step and stalked away into the dark and the trees.

Lily let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding, and let the curtain drop back into place. Turning, she picked up a tray carrying candles and a pitcher of water, and entered another small room as darkly furnished as the first, but better lit. Rochester was leaning against the stone fireplace. Lily could see the damage of the fire at Thornfield on his face; Rochester was blind. As she entered the room, Rochester heard her footsteps and turned towards her. Pilot, his dog, jumped off a chair and walked over to lick Lily’s hand.

“Is that you, Mary?” Rochester asked.

“Mary is in the kitchen,” Lily said.

He jumped in surprise. “Who are you?”

Lily smiled. “Pilot knows me, and Mary knows I’m here. I just arrived.”

“No…” Rochester stretched a hand towards Lily, who took it. “I must be mad…it can’t be – Jane?”

“Yes,” Lily said. “I’m here.”

“Jane! Jane Eyre!” Rochester kissed her hand and sunk down into a chair. Lily walked over, picked up a comb and began combing his shaggy, snarled hair. He sighed happily and took her hand again.

“Do you still find me ugly, Jane?” he asked.

Lily smiled. “Very. You always were, you know.”

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