Forty, by Maria Kelly
I got off the subway just in time to see Wilcox standing over by the newspaper stand. I recognized him by the scar on his left jaw that he said he got in a bar fight in Bedford-Stuy. He sent me his picture in the mail, so I’d know his face in the crowd. He was offering good money for my story. I kept telling the hacks that I didn’t know Liz back then, which was a lie, but they never listened anyway. Some of them go their own way, but occasionally one of them will say, “I talked to the maid,” or “Bridget told me to contact you,” then I have to at least go see them. Bridget doesn’t send just anybody looking for me. I went to see her shortly after the incident in Swansea and we had long talk. It might cost us both our lives, but we both agreed we have to help people when we can. When it seems legit.
So, when Sonny Wilcox phoned up and said the magic words, I had no choice. Because what really happened in that house on Second Street has been happening again and again, all over the country. And there were only a half-a-handful of people who knew the truth. Besides, I knew that even a rag as yellow as the Journal-American would never print the real story. Hearst is greedy, but he ‘aint stupid.
Wilcox shook my hand. “Let me buy you a drink,” he said.
“Sure. I’d like that.”
He took me to a place on South Broadway called the “Beach Nut Club” which was short on the beach, but heavy on the nuts. He got us a private booth a good distance away from the bar, far from the drunks. Wilcox bought us drinks: whiskey sour for him and a gin and tonic for me. He slid into the booth across from me with a slow purpose.
“So. Nance. Can I call you Nance? I saw in the paper… Mr. Hickman passed. My condolences.”
Here it comes, I thought.
“So….you’re kind of on your own now…now that your husband…and your…(nervous cough) friend are gone.”
I smiled my most charming smile, which was an older version of the one I used when trying to get parts from shitty producers, but was still my most redeeming feature. “Let’s cut to the chase, Mr. Wilcox. You want to know if I had a lesbian thing with her. Hell, you all want to know that more than you want to know about the murders! But that’s not what we’re here to talk about is it?”
He hung his head. “No, ma’am.”
“Who is it that’s been infected?”
“One of our reporters. Sam Greene.”
“Greene? Never heard of him. He’s new?”
“Yes’m. He was covering obituaries. Easy job. But also murders. Not the sensational starlet-gets-done-in-by-jealous-boyfriend murders, or like…Lizzie’s case.”
“What’s happened to Greene? Where is he now?”
“We’ve got him locked up in a hotel room in the Bronx.”
“What?” I asked, stupefied. “You dumb sons-of-bitches! You’ve put the whole city of New York in danger.”
Then I told him Liz’s story.
I left lots of things out. Like the fact that I was actually there. The official word is that I didn’t meet Liz until 1904, and that is the official word. The government insisted on it. I had too many contacts in the entertainment industry. They didn’t want anyone else to know I was there or else I wouldn’t have had a moments peace. I was sworn to secrecy on the threat of my life, Liz’s life and the life of my parents.
But yes, I was there. But I told Wilcox the story as if it had come to me through Liz. I’ll spare the readers of this epistle any such lies.
This is what really happened.
August 4th, 1892
We’d formed an acquaintance in Providence. I met her when she was visiting a friend there and they’d come to see me perform. She told me to visit her if ever I found myself in Fall River…so I did.
I knocked and the maid (who introduced herself as Bridget Sullivan) answered the door, and then summoned Liz, who came to let me in.
Her father was sitting in the drawing room, feet up, smoking the last quarter-inch of a cheap cigar. The news accounts of him had it right; you’d be hard pressed to find a more miserly man.
There was a smell of rot, which clung to the air, and it made me clutch my stomach. Liz saw me and I reddened with embarrassment.
“That’s the mutton on the stove gone bad,” she said simply, like it was the most normal thing in the world to keep rotten meat sitting on the stove. She led me up the stairs. “I expect Pa will want some for his lunch later.”
“Your father eats rotten meat?”
“They’ll eat it until it’s gone. They don’t believe in wasting anything.” She smiled and twirled around in the upstairs hall. She was wearing what looked like a new blue dress with yellow flowers. “Why do you think I’m so skinny? I don’t eat.”
We went into her sitting room where we sat on a couple of chairs and started catching up on all that had happened since Providence.
About half an hour later, we heard the screams.
We jumped up and ran downstairs to find Bridget backed into a corner, terrified. Mr. Borden was coming at her, his eyes glassy and crazed…blood dripping from his mouth.
“He…he tried to bite me!” she squealed. She backed further into the corner, like she was trying to disappear into the wallpaper, and Mr. Borden was only five feet away. He was moving slowly, though, and staggering like he’d drunk some bad whiskey.
“What’s wrong with him, Lizzie?” I asked her. Back then, everybody called her Lizzie.
“I don’t know.”
He seemed to be distracted by our voices. He paused, looking from Bridget to us and finally resuming his lurching gait toward Bridget.
“He’s gone mad,” I said. “What are we going to do?”
Liz ran off toward the kitchen and I stayed put on the staircase. I felt sorry for Bridget, but I didn’t know her well enough to risk my life for her. I’ve never been the heroine type, regardless of the roles I play on stage.
He was about five feet away and reaching out bloody hands to grab the poor girl…her screaming and crying the whole time, so loud it was a wonder the whole damn town didn’t hear her, when Liz came back through the kitchen carrying the hatchet. She swung it at her father. The flat of the blade hit him in the shoulder and he staggered back, landing flat on the sofa.
“Want…eat!” Mr. Borden said, struggling to rise. We could see, with his head back, that he’d already eaten something raw. Bits of bloody red flesh were stuck in his teeth as he bared them at us in a horrifying hiss.
“He’s been eating raw beef,” I said.
“We ‘aint got no beef in the house,” Bridget whimpered. “Just that spoiled mutton. I knew they shouldn’t of eaten that. I told them so!”
Borden hissed again and lunged at Liz. She raised the hatchet to ward him off and he ran right into it, smashing his face on the edge of it, cutting a nice gash from his forehead, through his eyeball. Blood leaked down his face. He fell back into the sofa and lay there, still for a moment. Then, just when we started to relax, he rose up again.
Liz shrieked and hit him again with the axe, over and over, until he finally stopped moving for good…his head damn near cut clean off. Liz was covered in gore.
The three of us went upstairs and found Abigail Borden floundering on her bed…her head a bloody mess and teeth marks on her forehead.
“Did he…do that?” Liz asked.
“Must have,” I replied.
Liz reached out her hand to try and touch her stepmother, but Abby Borden snapped at her, moaning.
“Oh, Holy Mother in Heaven!” Bridget cried. “She’s gone mad, too!”
Abby Borden tried to lift herself up off her bed, hissing in that same horrible way Mr. Borden had. Liz raised the axe and clubbed her with the flat of the blade.
One, two, three, four, five, six… I lost count after a dozen. In the end, Mrs. Borden’s skull was a red smear of blood and gray mass of brains on the pillow and it was finally over. We never knew what caused it. Government people from Boston and D.C. came in, cleaned everything up, and disposed of Liz’s bloody clothes. None of them acted a bit surprised when we told them what happened, so we figured they’d seen it before. They rigged the trial so that Liz got off for the ‘murders.’ We all hoped that the excited caused by it would die down when it was all over. But it was never over for Liz. Never.
Ostracized, Liz Borden couldn’t go anywhere in Fall River for fingers being pointed, and whispers behind her back…a stupid children’s singsong dogging her everywhere she went until the day she died.
“Lizzie Borden took an axe
and gave her father forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her mother forty-one.”
Wilcox was silent, head still bowed, listening intently.
“Was it forty?” I continued. “Eighty-one like the song suggests? I don’t know. All I know is, Lizzie Borden saved our lives that day and maybe the lives of the whole town, now that we know what we know.
“We saw it again, later. Bridget Sullivan’s cousins in Swansea. One of them was dead…DEAD, Mr. Wilcox! And came back to life, killed, and devoured most of his brother before someone managed to bash his head in with a shovel. The dead are walking, Wilcox, and they’re hungry…and if you’ve got any brains at all, you’ll get your ass back to Hearst and tell him to send someone over to the Bronx with a two-by-four and end Greene’s miserable existence…before all of you lose your brains to this flesh-eating rot.”
Wilcox grew pale and green at the same time. I thought for sure I’d be wearing his whiskey sour. Instead, he coughed and stood up. I took that as my cue that our interview was over and got up, too.
We walked outside the darkness of the Beach Nut Club into a beautiful and sunny New York afternoon. Hard to believe that not far away a man sat in a hotel room raving in his hunger for human flesh. I could tell that Wilcox was already beginning to doubt my story. That’s okay. He heard me…maybe they’ll do what needs to be done in the end, before anyone gets hurt.
If not, everything Lizzie Borden suffered in her exile from polite society will be for nothing and the world will be lost.
“Thanks again, Nance,” he said, shaking my hand.
“Remember…the head. You have to crush the head.”
He nodded and turned away.
My jaw dropped as my eyes focused on the bite mark on the back of his neck. I turned and ran, hell bent for leather…back to the subway station…to the bus that would take me home to Jersey, praying all the way…and I haven’t stopped praying since.
May God have mercy on us all.
Nancy O’ Neil, 1938
(Found taped to the underside of a dresser drawer in her home shortly after her death in 1965.)
Maria Kelly is an award-winning author and the publisher/editor of The-Were-Traveler. Recently published stories include “The King and His Twenty-Three Subjects” and “Shiny New Pants.” She’s currently planning a fantasy novel called “Quellseek: Army of Empaths” that she’ll try to write for NaNoWriMo between classes at community college. You can read her blog at mariakellyauthor.com and follow her on Twitter at @mkelly317.