There was one thing that Paris Frances Milan Beedle knew about herself with absolute clarity: She was an accident.
Her mother had been telling her as much since before she was even old enough to understand what that meant. At least four times a month, her mother would go into more and more detail about her reckless conception, birth and how the accident had ruined her mother’s lofty aspirations and dreams.
Whenever Paris’s mother would introduce her to any of the ladies of Unhappy Valley, the ladies would inevitably say something like, “What a beautiful and unusual name your daughter has.”
To which her mother would frown and reply, “I had always wanted to study abroad, but once I became pregnant, I knew that I would never be able to go anywhere, so she was named after those beautiful places that I would never be able to live.”
The ladies would go very quiet for awhile and then say, “Well she’s more beautiful than any of those places anyway. There’s nothing more wonderful than having a child.”
Her mother would let out a prim little laugh and sigh, “Thank you for trying to make me feel better, but it’s no use, the damage has been done.”
The ladies would then offer Paris a piteous smile before politely excusing themselves.
As to what her mother had planned to study in these exotic cities if not for the accident, she considered herself to be the greatest unknown wedding dress designer who ever lived. Never mind the fact that she had only ever designed one garment in her entire life, her own ill-fitting wedding dress which she had traced from a fashion magazine, she knew that if not for the accident her dresses would be worn by the crown heads of Europe.
In her mother’s handbag, she carried a picture of her solitary design and somehow would manage to show it to whomever she was speaking to.
“See how beautiful my dress was? Everyone tells me that it’s the most gorgeous dress that they’ve ever seen, and how terrible it is that I was not able to continue on with my studies.”
In truth, people had said that it was a beautiful dress to her face. It would be the very height of rudeness to tell the delusional designer what they really thought. But behind her back they would laugh and say how the wedding dress looked as if a fat cloud was in the middle of devouring a mermaid. They would also say things like, “Thank goodness she had a child. There’s not a design school on earth that would accept her.”
Not only had Paris been shown the photo on hundreds of occasions, but when her mother was in her foulest moods, she would take her into her room for the privilege of seeing the absurd garment. On these occasions, Paris would quietly nod her head and apologize for being such a terrible accident.
And she meant it too. She hated being the cause of destroying her mother’s dream.
When Paris was thirteen years old, something odd happened to her.
Her parents were out at a dinner function, the housekeeper had fallen asleep while listening to the radio, and Paris heard a tiny voice coming from her mother’s wardrobe. She silently crept inside the room, being sure not to turn on the light in case the change of atmosphere would awaken the maid, and pressed her ear to the wardrobe. She waited for a full minute, listening as hard as she could. She was about to give up and return to her bed when the tiny voice came again.
“Let me out of here,” the tiny voice whispered. “Let me out. I don’t belong here.”
Though she was terrified, Paris carefully opened the wardrobe. The puffy wedding dress with its mermaid tail hung as it always had, at the center of the wardrobe. As Paris watched, the wedding dress slowly expanded and retracted as it breathed the moth ball scented air.
“I don’t belong here, accident,” the dress whispered. “I belong on the crowned head of the queen of Paris. It’s your fault that I’m imprisoned in this wardrobe where none may marvel at my perfection.”
Paris shivered. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to be born.”
“If you were never born, I would be free. Let me out, accident.”
One of the sleeves reached out and gently touched Paris’ face.
“Let me out. Let me out.”
The other sleeve reached for Paris.
Shaking with fear, Paris quickly pushed the dress away and shut the heavy wardrobe door.
“Accident!” came the voice’s muffled cry. “I belong in Paris! Let me out! Let me out!”
Paris ran from the room and buried her head beneath the covers of her bed. But still she could hear the tiny voice.
“Let me out! I belong in Paris! You should have never been born, accident! Never been born!”
Paris didn’t sleep a wink the whole of that evening. Even when she heard her parents return from their dinner, she could still hear the wedding dress’ hideous, whispering voice.
“Stop it. Stop it. Stop it,” Paris whispered, covering her ears and rocking beneath her covers.
But the voice never stopped.
Before school, the next morning, as her mother and father were eating breakfast, Paris wrapped her pillow around her piggy bank and broke it open. She didn’t know how much money she had, but she stuffed the coins and crumpled bills into her pockets. She emptied her school bag, carefully returned to her mother’s wardrobe and stuffed the wedding dress inside.
“Have a good day at school,” her father called to her, looking up from his grapefruit. “Are you feeling alright, Paris? You’re very pale.”
“I’m fine,” she lied.
“You better not be coming down with anything, Paris Frances,” her mother chastised through a mouthful of toast. “I cannot afford you getting this house sick. I am entertaining the Ladies Poetry Society this evening.”
“I’m not sick,” Paris said.
“You had better not be,” her mother said, then returned to her breakfast.
With the wedding dress safely hidden in her school bag, Paris hastened off to school.
She was lucky that during homeroom she and her classmates had a quiz. Paris was an incredibly gifted pupil and answers always came to her quickly, even if she had no real knowledge of the subject. Whenever she read through a test’s questions, her mind would automatically put together a complex psychological profile of the person who had written it. From that information she seemed to know exactly what the person wanted to the answer to be. This worked best of all when the test maker was cunning and would formulate the questions in such a way to try and trick the pupil. Paris also knew that most test makers hated it when someone got all of the answers right. She had heard several teachers say things like, “I do not give ‘A’s in this classroom. People who get ‘A’s are not working to their potential because it means that they have nowhere else to go. They are lazy.” In some ways Paris even agreed with the statement. If not for the game of finding interesting ways to write down the occasional wrong answer in such a way to make her teachers feel superior, she would be bored out of her skull.
Today however, she didn’t have time for games. The wedding dress needed to be dealt with before it spoke to her again. In less than ten minutes, she had answered all of the quiz’s questions correctly, and raised her hand.
“You have a question, Paris?” her teacher asked.
“I’m finished, miss. May I go to the library?”
Her teacher lowered her eyes and glared at her. Paris knew that her teacher was now struggling with whether to send her out of the classroom or to admonish her for being a little miss know-it-all. Luckily, her teacher had been up late the night before, and wasn’t in the mood to deal cleverly with Paris. “Bring me your quiz, and you may go,” she flatly said.
Paris picked up her school bag and quiz, and forced herself to calmly walk to the front of the room. She could feel the hateful stares of the other girls in the classroom who were all struggling with the quiz. She knew that she would pay for this later. This lapse of standing out and not knowing her place. The girls in her class hated a miss know-it-all even more than the teachers did. But Paris did not have time to worry about them now. She could hear the smooth fabric of the wedding dress rustling as she walked.
Her teacher’s glare transformed into a smug smile as she snatched the quiz from Paris’ hand. She too had seen the hateful looks on the other girls’ faces, and knew that they would punish Paris far worse than she could. “Do enjoy the library, Paris.”
“Thank you, miss.”
As it almost always was, the library was empty. She quickly walked through the sections, grabbing several books as she went. Using an atlas, last year’s copy of Who’s Who, and a book titled, The History of Parisian Aristocracy Past and Present, Paris managed to cobble together a shipping address that she scribbled on the back of an index card. She then did something that she would have never dreamed of doing before. She exited the school through the library’s back door and left the school grounds for the center of town to the post office.
Luck was still with her when she discovered that she had just enough money for a box and stamps to ship the the wedding dress to Paris. The clerk informed her that her package would be picked up at noon, and the wedding dress would be out of her life forever.
The weight of her burden now lifted, Paris returned to school and was back in her chair in less than forty minutes. So happy to have the dreaded wedding dress out of her life, Paris didn’t even struggle when, later that day, she was dragged into a restroom and endured a scolding and minor beating from four of the girls from her class. She was still happy when she returned home and discovered that her mother had been so busy overseeing the maid’s preparations for the Ladies Poetry Society, that she had not yet noticed that the wedding dress was gone.
That evening, however, once the final lady had left their house, wobbly from drinking too much sherry, her mother retired to her room and soon let out a piercing shriek.
“Where is my wedding dress?” her mother screamed as she threw open the door to Paris’ bedroom.
Paris had never told a lie in her life, and just barely told one now. She told her mother exactly what she had done with the wedding dress, omitting only her true reason for doing so. “It’s such a lovely dress, mother, that I had to send it to Paris. I knew that your modesty would never allow you to do it. I wrote a card with your name and address so they can contact the designer once they see how marvelous it is. You’ve been hinting for years how much you wanted someone to send it to the right sort of people.”
Her mother was only momentarily disarmed by this. Then she broke out into a white hot rage. Paris bore it all. She even found herself taking the tiniest bit of pleasure from her mother’s fury. She could see now what she had always believed; that her mother had no faith in her ability as a designer, and her big talk was only a cover for her true opinion of the wedding dress. Paris was an accident, yes, but a convenient one to hide the fact that she was actually nothing more than a terrible designer.
Paris’ pleasure didn’t last long though. It turned out that failed, designer mother was worse than pompous, boasting mother. For the next three years, her mother barely spoke to her. She was so defeated by the loss of her wedding dress, the only thing that defined her, that she became so miserable and hateful. This also meant that she and her father were now always in some sort of row. She even overheard her father threatening her mother with divorce.
Paris had caused it all. She was responsible. For the first time, she too believed that she was born only to destroy her mother’s life.
The guilt was too much to bear. She had made several attempts to apologize to her mother. She had almost even told her mother the truth about the night when she had heard the wedding dress calling to her, but decided that it was best to keep that secret hidden. Admitting to hearing voices was something that an insane person would do. And wouldn’t that not give her mother an opportunity for revenge? Wouldn’t her mother like nothing more than to ship her off to an insane asylum? She thought about the night that the dress has called to her a lot. And as the years passed, she wondered if it had all been in her mind. Perhaps I am insane, she would think to herself. And to that question, she had no answer.
The month before Paris’ sixteenth birthday, her father moved out of the house, taking the maid, who he had been taking up with, with him. Her mother went to pieces, and had confined herself to bed with no one but Paris to look after her.
Paris dropped out of school in order to take care of her mother full time. She cleaned and cooked and helped out in any capacity that she could. Her guilt was so heavy now that Paris became a dutiful nurse to the broken woman. Every time she would enter her mother’s room, to bring her food or the odd smelling medicine that the family doctor has prescribed, she wished she could take it all back. She wished the wedding dress was back in the wardrobe. If it had truly spoke and moved on that fateful night three years ago, it could do to her whatever it liked. She would accept any punishment, as long as her mother could just have her false pride, and go back to hating Paris in the way she had before.
On the day of her sixteenth birthday, Paris received a birthday cake from her father. It had been delivered to the house by the postman. She had not seen or spoken to her father in weeks.
The cake was pink, with white piping and yellow frosted flowers. Written on it was ‘Happy Birthday Princess’. She set the cake on the dining room table and stared at it for a long time. Her father had never called her princess before. In fact, he had never called her by any pet name before. This new version of her father had no doubt come from his new life with their ex-maid. A happy life of sweet nicknames, laughter, joy and far away from his discarded family.
“Who was at the door?” her mother asked, making Paris jump in her chair.
She turned around and saw her bed ridden mother standing behind her.
“Happy Birthday Princess,” her mother read. “Disgusting. That’s what’s written on the birthday cakes in the display window. The bastard couldn’t even be bothered to have them spell out your name.” Her mother crossed to a chair and dropped into it. “Well don’t just sit there, Paris, go and get the candles. The bastard was good enough to send this to you. No doubt trying to turn you even more against me, as if that were even possible.”
Paris went to a kitchen drawer and brought back a book of matches and an unopened box of birthday candles. As her mother watched, muttering something under her breath, Paris stuck sixteen candles into the cake and lit them.
“Blow them out, Princess,” her mother commanded. “Make a wish.”
Paris did not make a wish, there was no point. She had already bee wishing for the same thing for days now, and though it was her birthday, it was just another dark day like any other.
She blew out the candles.
As the candles went out, the room suddenly became very dark and there was heaviness in the air. A feeling went through Paris that she couldn’t find the words to explain. It was something like dread, but wrapped in the frilly wrapping paper of hope. The world around her shifted, and then she and her mother were back sitting in the dimly lit dining room.
Then a voice spoke to her. It was a familiar, raspy voice.
“Why am I back here?” the voice said. “I’ve seen the world, accident. I’ve been worn by the crowned heads of Paris.”
Paris looked up and could see her mother staring at her. Had she heard the voice too? Was it only in her head? Was she insane? Who will look after her mother if she’s insane?
The voice came again. “Send me back, accident. Send me back to Paris. Do it! Do it now, you selfish pile of skin. Do it, princess.”
Paris slowly looked down. The voice was coming from the birthday cake.
She tried to stand, when the cake burst apart and the sleeves from her mother’s wedding dress reached for her. Before Paris could move, the cake-covered sleeves wrapped themselves around her neck. The wedding dress rose from the cake. In the shadows, the puff of tulle appeared as the face of an old woman.
“You brought me back!” the face bellowed. “Not enough to destroy your parent’s happiness, had to destroy mine too. Is that what you wanted, Princess? Is this what you wanted?”
Paris fell back in her chair, pulling the wedding dress down onto her. The dress’ hideous mouth bit down on her face, sucking the air out of her lungs. The sleeves tightened. Paris tried to move, but the wedding dress’ mermaid tail was slapping her down to the floor. The sleeves became tighter. The mouth sucked on her nose. All of her air was gone.
The doctor arrived four days later, bringing with him a refill of her mother’s medicine. He was surprised to see that the front door was ajar. He called into the house, but there was no reply. He stepped into the foyer and called again. No answer came. As he waited, he noticed a sickly, sweet smell coming from the dinning room. Curious, the doctor entered the silent room, and that’s where he found the bodies, beneath a swarm of buzzing flies.
Paris Frances Milan Beedle lay dead on the dinning room floor. Her eyes were wide in horror. Above her ashen purple face, her hands frozen around her daughter’s throat, was her mother. The woman’s heart had seized while strangling her own daughter. Her eyes, too, were open, and the corpse was grinning. Flies were gathered at the corner of her mouth.
What was even more odd, and what could never be explained, was what the dead woman was wearing.
It was a rancid, frosting streaked, wedding dress.
The ugliest wedding dress that the doctor had ever seen.
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