Excerpt 1: A CURSE OF ASH AND IRON

Published July 14, 2015 by christinenorris

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I present you all, my lovelies, with the first excerpt of CURSE:

The roar of applause jolted Ben out of his reverie. The lights lowered, he raised the curtain, and the second act began. In between set changes, he dashed back to his place to look at Ellie. The performance ended, and Ben couldn’t let her go without one last look. He lowered the main curtain, apparently a bit too quickly for the lead actor.

“Excuse me, but I was not finished with my curtain call!” he shouted at Ben as he dashed toward the stage door. Ben tumbled out onto 9th Street and charged toward the corner. Breathing hard, he peeked around to Walnut Street and the theater’s entrance. A line of horse-drawn carriages waited by the curb, ready to take the audience members home, or to a late supper, or to various clubs to drink bourbon and gin. Ben reached into his pocket, his fingers finding a brass gear–his lucky talisman. He rubbed it between his forefinger and thumb, trying to calm the unexpected swell of conflicting emotions that seeing Ellie had stirred in him—curiosity, excitement, anticipation. Did she still love to sing and dance, or to read everything she could get her hands on? The space of the years between then and now called to Ben, begging to be filled.

He scanned the stream of bodies that emerged from the theater’s polished wooden doors and spilled onto the sidewalk. Ladies pulled their wraps snugly around their shoulders against the October chill, and men checked their pocket watches before buttoning up frockcoats and securing silk top hats. Ben shook his head—they looked like a bunch of overstuffed turkeys ready to roast. He had never been fond of fancy dress, not that he had the occasion or the means to wear any. It looked uncomfortable and also like it would get dirty easily. Ben was nearly always dirty in some manner, with some speck on his shirt collar or grease beneath his fingernails from working or building something in his workshop.

Ellie, Rebecca, and Mrs. Banneker appeared on the sidewalk, and Ben had to remember to breathe. Ellie’s cloak covered her gown, but she stood tall, moving as if her feet barely touched the ground. She had always been graceful. Dancing lessons, insisted upon by her mother since she was young, had probably helped. Ben smiled as the younger version of the girl he saw before him appeared in his mind, twirling and curtseying in time to her governess’ tapping on the floor with a cane while Rebecca served as her dancing partner. He hadn’t been allowed to watch, of course, and Ellie’s governess would rather have set her hair on fire than let Ben stand in for Rebecca. But he had sneaked a peek now and again, just like he was doing now.

Ellie looked over her shoulder in response to her stepmother’s call, and Ben got a glimpse of smooth, unblemished cheek and kind, soft eyes. Ben noticed it again, the same something he had seen in the lobby that made her appear older, more careworn. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he recognized it—he had seen the same look in his mother’s eyes once in a while, when she thought Ben wasn’t paying attention.

He wanted to call out to Ellie, to shout his joy and surprise over seeing her, but, of course, he could not. The social gap between them was too wide for sidewalk greetings outside the theater.

“Where is Mr. Banneker this evening?” one of the stuffed turkey-men asked Ellie’s stepmother. “I’ve not seen him in months. Not working late on a Friday evening, is he? The banks are all closed!” He chuckled at his own joke.

Mrs. Banneker stiffened beneath her fur wrap. “He is on sabbatical in Paris, Mr. Van Wyck. I thought you knew? Then he’s taking some time along the French coast. We went there on our honeymoon, and, ever since, he’s just loved France. The sea air is so good for him, and these city winters are so terrible.” She twittered a girlish, high-pitched laugh.

 Ben fought the urge to vomit. The woman he remembered was neither stupid nor girlish. More like a demon stuffed into a dress.

He was so focused on Mrs. Banneker he almost missed when Ellie spotted him. Her wide-eye, puzzled expression shifted to recognition and surprise, and she moved half a step toward him, then stopped. She must have been thinking the same thing as Ben—she could not just walk around the corner unescorted. But she held his gaze for a  moment and then glanced to her left and right. Turning herself away from the crowd, she pulled off one of her gloves and shoved it into her reticule. What in the world was she was doing?

“Excuse me, Ste… ma’am? I seem to have lost one of my gloves.”

Mrs. Banneker turned away from Mr. Van Wyck and faced Ellie. Her face puckered for a split-second in irritation, smoothing quickly into a look of benevolence. “Lost a glove, my”—she swallowed, her lip twisting up as if she had tasted something bitter—“dear?”

Ellie’s smile never faltered. “Yes. I’m such a goose. I must have dropped it inside. I’ll just go and look for it. I won’t be a moment.”

She excused herself and walked into the theater, leaving her stepmother standing with her mouth open. Ben remained for a second longer before he realized what was happening and dashed back through the stage door.

“Hey, Ben, where ya been?” Ronald called out as Ben rushed by. “And just where are you going? Just because your dad’s the stage manager doesn’t mean you get to slack off.”

Benjamin ignored Ronald and dodged the obstacle course of the backstage area toward the curtain, nearly tripping on an overstuffed chair. The auditorium was empty. The footlights were dark, but the lights from the chandelier above the audience area glowed brightly, the crystal throwing rainbows around the room.

Ellie entered. She stopped for a moment, her eyes wary, and her hand against her stomach as if she were holding in her breath.

“Ellie?” Ben called her. “Ellie Banneker?

Her shoulders relaxed, and her breath came out in a whoosh. She paused for another breath before making her way down the center aisle toward Ben. The door closed behind her with a muffled thump, shutting out the murmurs of those who remained in the lobby. The theater dropped into an eerie quiet. Now that they were face-to-face, Benjamin’s excitement was replaced by overwhelming self-consciousness. He ran his sweaty palms through his hair, smoothing the runaway brown locks his mother would say needed trimming. He was suddenly aware of the way he was dressedhe looked like a ragamuffin compared to the upper class men Ellie must be used to. Her chestnut hair shone in the light, her green eyes wary but bright. Ben stopped near the first row, a lump in his throat, hoping she wouldn’t notice the scuffed tops of his shoes and his frayed shirt cuffs, and let her approach him.

“Benjamin Grimm? It is you.” Her smile widened, and it was as if the curtain had gone up in her eyes. The sadness Ben had seen before lifted, and she became a girl of seventeen. She reached out to him with her bare hand.

His nervousness evaporated like morning fog. He wiped his hand on his pants and then grasped hers tightly, catching the slight scent of soap and rose water.

Ben had expected the soft hand of the daughter of a prominent banker; hands used to doing embroidery and playing the piano. But there were calluses on her palm, the nails short and ragged. Her skin was pink and chapped. His expression must have given away some of his surprise, because when he released her hand, Ellie tucked it into the folds of her skirt. “I can’t believe that you… It’s been so long, Ben. You’ve grown.”

The look in her eyes made Ben decide to keep quiet about her hands. He was glad she had come in to see him. Having spent years under her stepmother’s care, he had worried she might have turned into a snob. “As have you, my lady.” His grin was large as he bent over in an exaggerated bow.

“Oh, please don’t. Ben, stop it this minute.” Ellie put her hands to her blushing cheeks, as if trying to hold back her smile.

Ben stood, laughing, and thrust his hands in his pockets. “I was hiding in the loft above the lobby and saw you come in tonight. I… didn’t recognize you at first. You’ve, uh, changed.” It was his turn to blush again as he remembered what he had been thinking about her curves.

“You’ve changed, too.” She squinted and looked closely at his face. “I can’t see any dirt. So your mother finally wrestled you into submission about keeping clean.”

Ben didn’t answer, only smirked and scratched the back of his head. “I tried to think how many years it’s been since I saw you last.”

“Seven.” Ellie’s reply was so soft he almost didn’t hear it. “Seven years. The last time I saw you, we were both ten, after…” she hesitated. “After my mother died.”

Ben’s smile faltered. “Yes, that’s right.” He felt stupid for forgetting, even more stupid for making her bring up something so obviously painful. His own mother had cried for days after her employer’s passing. Ellie’s mother had been a lovely woman, who had provided him with a seemingly endless supply of sweets.

Ellie shook her head as if shaking herself free of the edge of melancholy that had dropped over the conversation. “How is your dear mother? And your little brother? I’m sure he’s no longer the chubby-cheeked baby I remember.”

Ben shrugged. “Mother’s fine. She keeps busy running the bookshop. Harry is… he’s a little brother.”

Ellie wrinkled her nose and narrowed her eyes. “Being as I have no little brothers, I’ll have to assume you mean you love him dearly and can’t imagine life without him.”

“Not exactly, but I don’t want to ruin your image of me as a wholesome young man, so I won’t tell you what I really think about him. It wouldn’t be proper for me to say in front of a lady, anyway.”

“You think I’m a lady, do you? You might be surprised at some of the words I’ve used when no one is listening.” Ellie’s gaze wandered over the theater’s ceiling. There was a teasing note in her voice. “I never thought I’d see you working here. If I remember correctly, you said if you were going to be in the theater, it would be in front of the footlights. A magician, I believe it was?”

“I’m still working on that,” Ben’s reply was touched with defensiveness. “But now it’s illusion instead of straight magic, don’t you know that? It’s all the rage in Europe. Until I can find a backer, I need to work. My father, he’s the stage manager now. He got me the job, said it would do me good to learn a real skill.” He rolled his eyes.

Ellie raised an eyebrow. “He doesn’t approve of your career aspirations?”

Ben shook his head. “He lets me keep my workshop, but thinks I’m wasting my time.” He shrugged. “It’s better than the brickyard.”

Ellie laughed out loud, a pretty sound that rolled around the inside of the theater. She covered her mouth and glanced over her shoulder to make sure no one else had heard. When she stopped giggling, she looked at Ben and sighed. “I can’t stay, Ben, I don’t want to keep my stepmother waiting.” She glanced over her shoulder and back to Ben. “It was so good to see you again.”

Ben felt the words were weighted somehow, like a current pulling beneath the calm surface of a river. “It was good to see you again, too, Ellie.” There was so much more Ben wanted to say, seven years’ worth. He didn’t dare ask to see her again, though, and resigned himself to only having this stolen moment.

Ellie pulled on her “missing” glove and took Ben’s hand once more. “Goodbye, Ben.” She released him, but did not turn and leave. Instead, she studied him as if he were an interesting painting, her eyes glowing. The look brought on a sudden rush of memory. Ellie was up to something.

“Do you remember your promise?”

Ben was puzzled for a moment, and then he remembered. “Of course.”

“And are you still my friend?”

“Until we’re old and gray and have no teeth in our heads.” Ben smiled, waiting for her to laugh like always. But, just as the last time he had said it, up in the dark attic on their last meeting, she remained serious. With a bob of her head, she turned and was gone.

Ben remained frozen in place. Something wasn’t right with Ellie; he could feel it. There had been a darkness behind her smile he couldn’t place.

Ronald poked his head from between the curtains, jarring Ben from his thoughts. “If your clandestine rendezvous is over, boy-o, could you possibly find a moment to, I don’t know, do your job? Come on, we have to reset everything for tomorrow night.”

Ben stared at the door a moment longer, his body in the present but his mind following Ellie out the door. He rubbed his thumb over his lucky gear. “Yeah, yeah, hold yer horses, Ronny boy. I’m comin’.”

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