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The Curious Fates of Mr. and Mrs. Stowe
Alice Stowe clung to her husband’s arm, panting. “Darling? Are you alright?” Richard Stowe inquired.
She waved a hand. “I’ll… I’ll be fine shortly, dear.”
“Whatever is the matter?” As he spoke, Richard led his wife off the dance floor.
She smiled ruefully. “Oh, it is just my corset. I’m afraid you cinched it rather tightly for the Independence Ball and the strenuous dancing, dear.”
“Darling, I’m so sorry you feel it is an inconvenience, but please, understand that I only wish for you to look beautiful.”
Her smile wavered slightly. “I… thank you, dear. That is very… thoughtful. As is this lovely gown, though I must admit these skirts are rather heavy.”
“It is the finest and most fashionable design. Only the best for you, my Alice.”
Alice averted her gaze. She slowly withdrew her hand. “I think I will go watch the fireworks now, dear.”
He frowned slightly. “So soon? Couldn’t you stay awhile longer? My gentleman friends wish to see you on the dance floor in all your finery.”
“I believe some fresh air would do me good,” she explained, fanning her face with her hand.
“Well… I suppose I will allow it for you, darling.” Richard pecked her on the cheek and walked away. Alice watched his retreating back for a moment, then left the ballroom.
The streets were crowded with townsfolk, and the air was stifilingly thick with body heat. Everyone’s heads were tipped back, their necks craned up at the clear night sky. The blue flames of the gaslights hissed softly, and fabric rustled as people shuffled around on the cobblestones.
Alice weaved through the crowd, murmuring apologies as she walked. There are far too many people, she thought. I will never see the fireworks properly from here.
Her eyes flitted over the streets for a moment, then landed on the bridge crossing the river that ran through town. Ah, that will be perfect! she decided. No one else is there, and it is further away from the crowds.
Alice brushed past several people before emerging from the crowd. Smiling, she calmly walked towards the bridge.
Suddenly, there was a fizzling sound and a woosh. She turned around.
Alice watched as a rocket lazily arced into the air. It seemed to wobble to a halt just over a row of houses. Then, the firework exploded with an ear-shattering roar. Silver sparks pelted the roofs of several homes, and the wooden shingles smoked. Red and orange tendrils of flame snaked into the air, crackling.
People screamed. As houses caught fire, they staggered away and pushed at each other. Everyone broke into a run, surging down the street.
It is a stampede, Alice realized. And they’re coming straight for me.
She whirled around and ran. Her shoes slipped off, and her bare feet slapped against the cobblestones. The screaming of the crowd grew closer.
Alice fixed her sights on the bridge. I have to make it. I must make it across! She sprinted faster.
Her lungs strained against the corset, crying for air. Alice began to feel light-headed.
No! I mustn’t stop!
The fabric chafed her skin. Sweat beaded her forehead, and her face paled.
I must… make it…
She gasped. Her lips turned blue.
Her feet landed on the bridge’s rough wooden boards. Abruptly, Alice bent over and wheezed. She coughed and greedily sucked in mouthfuls of air. Dizzily, she heard footsteps pounding behind her.
What’s… that? she wondered dazedly.
Screams pierced the fog of exhaustion in her mind. Alice looked over her shoulder. For a moment, she simply watched as the stampede barreled towards her still-unmoving form.
Then the fog lifted, and her eyes widened. She turned to run.
Suddenly, they were everywhere. They stepped on her with pointed heels, elbowed her in the ribs and shrieked in her ears. Alice barely struggled upright before someone slammed into her from behind. She tumbled into another person, and they blindly shoved her away. Alice fell backwards, over the railing, and towards the murky river below.
She struck the water with a splash. “Help! Somebody help!” she screamed. Alice flailed about, kicking her legs as she struggled for the shore. But water seeped into the layered skirts of her gown, dragging her down.
Her screams turned into gurgling cries as her head sank below the surface. Water rushed into her mouth, nose and lungs. She tried to choke out a cough, only to swallow more water. The full, suffocating weight of the river bore down on Alice.
Bubbles forced their way out of her mouth. Her lungs squeezed and strained for air. Spots dotted her vision. Finally, Alice’s body went limp. Her vision faded to black, and she saw nothing more.
At least, so it seemed.
On August fourth, Richard Stowe took an evening stroll. He appraisingly studied the half-constructed houses. The carpenters have been working at an exceptional rate! he thought. Soon, everyone will return to their homes, and we can all put this ghastly business behind us.
He almost skipped down the street, whistling an airy tune.
He paused mid-step. Glancing around, he shrugged and continued walking.
The whisper brushed past his ear. “Hello? he called.
Behind him, something squelched. He turned around. Several feet away, he could see two damp footprints on the cobblestones.
That’s odd, he thought. How did two footprints land in the middle of the road with no sign of other markings?
Then, before his very eyes, another footprint soaked into the pavement.
Richard stared blankly. It’s as if they just appeared there, he realized.
More footprints appeared. Richard stumbled back, eyes wide. Now there was a trail slowly snaking down the street… and leading to him.
Richard turned and ran. The footprints splashed onto the road behind him, coming faster and faster.
There’s nowhere to go… except for the bridge!
He broke into a sprint, the bridge bobbing closer in his field of vision. Suddenly, his tie tightened around his throat. He let out a strangled gasp.
The footsteps splattered closer.
Richard’s hands flew up to his neck. His fingers scrabbled at his tie, clawing frantically. It only grew tighter.
A breeze stirred behind him.
Richard stumbled onto the bridge. He doubled over, gasping. The tie finally slackened around his throat, and he sucked in mouthfuls of air.
A hand gently touched his shoulder. He looked up.
Wet hair hung loosely around her shoulders, dripping steadily on the cobblestones. Muck and algae coated the skirt of her once-vibrant gown. Blue lips parted as she heaved a rattling cough.
Richard stared unblinkingly for several seconds. “Alice?” he breathed.
“Don’t tell me you don’t recognize your darling wife, Richard!” Her glassy eyes hardened. “Especially when you so painstakingly chose her wardrobe.”
A tremor ran through his body. “But you’re dead. You’re dead! Why are you here?!”
Alice threw back her head and let out a gurgling laugh. Suddenly, she grabbed the lapels of Richard’s suit.
“Why, Richard! What wife would I be if I didn’t repay the favor?”
“W-what favor? Damn it, woman, what—?!”
He fell silent as she lifted him in the air by his lapels.
“You wanted to dress me up, my dear.” Her blue lips split in a smile. “Let me do the same for you.”
When dawn broke the next morning, a constable making his morning rounds discovered Richard Stowe floating face-down in the river. His arms and legs were tightly bound by several spools worth of pink ribbon. A single strand was tied in a neat bow around his neck.
The constable hurriedly blew on his whistle. Several of his colleagues, also making their rounds, sprinted over. Word spread quickly through the little town. A crowd gathered at the bridge, murmuring amongst themselves as the police lifted the body from the water.
“Alright, ladies and gentlemen,” the first constable called out. “This is a crime scene, so we kindly ask that everyone—”
A man standing at the front of the crowd stumbled back, his eyes wide behind wire-rimmed spectacles.
The constable steadied the man. “Yes, it is quite the shocking sight, Mr. Riggs. That is why we ask for—”
Mr. Riggs stared at the body of Richard Stowe as it was heaved over the railing. “You don’t understand, Constable,” he replied in a querulous voice. “I recognize those ribbons!”
“They are from my shop! I would recognize them anywhere… and I suspect Mr. Stowe would as well.”
“Whatever do you mean, sir?”
“Those ribbons cinched a particular item...” His voice faltered.
“Sir? Please continue.”
Mr. Riggs took a deep breath.“They cinched the corset he purchased for his late wife.”