Louise scrubbed the floor.
With each hard brush, tiny pieces of brown shell broke free from the cockroach-sponge, doubling the work. She’d never get it done. Not in time for checks. Maybe if she’d had a real sponge—the kind to actually soak up water—or even some soap, it might be possible. But how could she complain? All the other girls had the same thing, were required to do the same thing. Clean. Clean the ship’s interior with nothing more than a bucket of brown water and dead cockroaches the size of infants. It was all day, every day until… Louise didn’t know.
She’d been here as long as she could remember. And at nine years old, that felt like a lifetime. She’d often wondered how she ended up on the ship, if her parents were looking for her, or if she’d done something wrong. It was the same thought all the other girls had, except for the older ones, who stopped caring years ago. It didn’t matter why they were here. There was no escaping the Lady of the Lake, so why bother thinking about it?
Louise wiped her forehead and wished for a shower. If she cleaned her section thoroughly, Madame would gift one. If not, she’d have to go another week. Maybe even a month. Louise recoiled at the thought. The last month she went without showering made her violently sick, and she swore she’d do everything Madame asked, even clean an impossibly dirty floor with toilet water and one of the monstrous dead bugs the ship was known to house.
“Hurry up…” Ann whispered. “She’s coming.”
Louise scrubbed harder. Faster. She wouldn’t finish in time. The Madame was back early and Louise still had a quarter of the floor left. What was she going to do?
“I hope this level is clean, ladies,” Madame’s voice traveled through the metal hall. “I’d be disappointed to find it isn’t.”
“She’s going to flip when she sees your section, Louise,” Joan, one of the older girls snickered. “No shower for two months!”
“Shush it, Joan!” Ann hissed.
“That better not be talking I hear,” Madame’s voice drew nearer. “You know talking is not tolerated.”
Louise scrubbed faster. Even though her section wasn’t done, maybe Madame would be happy with the work she did do. Maybe.
“Ah,” she cooed as her footsteps came to a halt.
Louise was afraid to look up. Had the other girls finished their sections? Was she the only one still scrubbing? She dared not look. Sometimes, in the middle of things, Louise drifted away. She never intended to, but found herself pretending to be a mermaid, caught by vicious sailormen that stole her while her parents slumbered. Other times, Louise imagined she was a princess, kidnapped from a kingdom still mourning her absence. And in these daydreams, Louise’s hand moved slower, her grip on the cockroach lessening. A hopeful possibility turned into minutes lost and losing time was serious. Dangerous, even.
Madame’s one word sent a chill down Louise’s spine. Would she be reprimanded? Or worse—selected? She lowered herself to the ground, as was procedure. And then peeked out through the gap under her arm. All sixteen girls waited the same way—kneeling with their foreheads hovering over the floor. All dressed in the same ratted black tights and blue sailor dresses, most opted to pull their hair back in a ponytail or bun. Even Louise. She learned early on that no matter how clean she could get the floor, she didn’t want her blonde hair touching the thing.
But the youngest—Francesca—forgot again.
Brown hair fell in waves, dripping into the dirty water and some, right onto the cockroach-sponge. Louise suppressed a wince. She hated touching it with her hand, but the hair seemed even more intimate somehow. How could Francesca forget again?
Madame’s red heels walked past Louise and over toward the six year old. Louise wanted to watch—she felt she owed it to Francesca not look away and actually witness the action—but in the end, she shut her eyes and cringed. And only heard the girl crying in protest as Madame dragged her across the floor and behind ‘the door.’ Every day, Madame would find the dirtiest section and that girl would be the example. To work harder. To work faster. Because when she came back the following day, something wasn’t right. Something… changed. You could tell by the sunken eyes, by the new, extra-skittish nature. Something happened behind that door—something evil.
Louise had never been picked. Thank God. Even with her elaborate day dreams, the younger girls moved slower, still fresh to complaining about why they were here and how they got here and how they didn’t want to work. Louise had been like that in the beginning too—she thought—but fear cloaked her every move and she knew enough not to complain. And not to get picked. Because she didn’t want to see what lay behind the door. If she worked for anything, it was that reason.
“I knew it was going to be Franny,” Joan chuckled and got to her feet, wiping brown flecks of shell from her hands. “What a crybaby.”
“Give it a break, Joan,” Ann huffed. “One of these days it’s going to be you.”
“You say that now,” she threw her cockroach-sponge in the bucket and stood up. “It’s only a matter of time.”
“Yeah,” Joan laughed. “We’ll see. Maybe,” she tossed the cleaning tool on the ground and strolled closer to Ann, “you’ll forget your sponge and bucket tomorrow. Maybe Madame will reach a whole new level of pissed-off.” She crossed her arms as a sinister smile crossed her lips. “That’s something I’d like to see.”
All the girls gathered around, intrigued by the possible fight. Joan and Ann were known to go at it from time to time, and with Madame distracted with whatever was happening behind ‘the door,’ it was a perfect time to hash it out again. Ann, who, despite being twelve years old, had no problem standing up to Joan, the sixteen year old bully who liked to taunt and tease all the younger girls, ones like Francesca and Louise. Some even feared her worse than they did Madame, who only showed up for inspections and of course, to drag the selected girl to ‘the door’ as an example.
Louise often wondered about Joan. Wondered if the dark-haired teen acted the way she did because of how long she’d been on Lady of the Lake. Would Joan be different if she lived somewhere else—if she did something else? At sixteen, she’d had more years in the place even though Louise, at nine, felt like she’d been on the ship forever.
A scream emitted from behind ‘the door’ and all the girls fell silent. It was done. Whatever happened back there, it’d happened to Francesca and a sinking feeling of dread washed over Louise. Francesca would never be the same. And Louise couldn’t help but shake.
That night, Ann crept over to Louise’s cot and braided her hair. It was the same thing every evening when the girls went to bed—Ann would do checks on each of the younger ones, to calm and sooth them into a nightmare-less sleep, so they’d get enough rest for the following day. Louise waited patiently for her turn, trying not to think about Francesca, who shared the cot next to her. Except Francesca looked different—strange. But maybe she’d always looked like that? With the pale complexion and blue eyes—
Wait, hadn’t they been green?
Ann stopped at Louise’s cot. She’d learned early on that the nine year old suffered from violent night tremors, and the one thing that could tame them. Something about Ann’s fingers in her long, blonde hair helped sooth Louise into a peaceful slumber. And she needed that. Especially tonight.
But the following morning, Louise struggled to get up. Even with Ann’s reassuring touch, she’d had a hard time falling asleep. She was sluggish and lethargic, missing the bucket’s handle the first few times she’d reached for it. She was last in line to fill the thing with toilet water from the brown-walled bathroom, and to grab one of the cockroach-sponges from the heaping new pile placed just outside the door. Louise yawned and blinked a few times, trying to wake up. But something wasn’t right. She’d attributed it to Francesca’s odd state. She could have sworn the girl had green eyes. Maybe she was remembering wrong?
This happened a lot to Louise.
She’d think she’d know a girl’s trait—like her hair or eye color—and then it’d suddenly be different… or as it always was. Louise could never tell. It made her think she was crazy—and maybe she was—so she stopped trying to notice anything and stayed away from the other girls, keeping mostly to herself. But Louise couldn’t shake the Francesca thing. She could have sworn the girl had green eyes. And Francesca —was that always her name? No, her name was Betty. Where’d she get Francesca from? Louise shook her head and pushed the cockroach-sponge up the floor. Usually, she entertained herself with fantasies of alternate lives. But now she was determined to remember Betty—yeah, Betty—as she always was.
“Louise!” Ann whispered as her eyes filled with dread. “What are you doing?”
Louise looked up.
And then stilled.
Her section was a mess. She must not have been paying attention. How long wasn’t she paying attention? She’d only had a small fraction cleared, but brown flecks clung to it and Madame would be coming back soon. There was no way she’d make up for the lost time she spent thinking about Betty, about their limited word exchanges, about knowing Betty had always been Betty.
But really—how stupid could Louise be? She peered around at other parts of the floor. Clean. Unlike hers.
“Just hurry!” Ann whispered again, pointing. “Just clean as fast as you can!”
“It’s going to be Louise today,” Joan chuckled. “I’m calling it.”
Ann crawled over and started scrubbing part of Louise’s section.
“You can’t help her!” Joan cried.
“Is that talking I hear?” Madame’s voice drifted through the hall.
Ann scrubbed even harder, trying to get as much done as possible. It’d take another two or three people to get Louise’s section looking anything like the other girls’, but no one else moved to help. Instead, they sat up and watched the two girls work, sighing with a breath of relief that it wouldn’t be them today. They all had another day in hell to look forward to.
Madame’s heels clicked down the hall but Ann refused to return to her section. She kept scrubbing, kept dipping her cockroach-sponge in the brown water while Louise sat motionless and watched. She knew. She knew with every fiber of her being that her turn had finally come and fear paralyzed her. There was nothing she could do.
“You’re going to get in trouble!” Joan taunted.
Ann looked from her to Louise, who still refused to move. Finally, the girl scurried back to her own section but mouthed the words ‘keep cleaning.’
And then Madame appeared.
Everyone dropped to the hunched-over position, as was procedure. Louise’s heart pounded harder than it ever had before. She’d be dragged behind ‘the door’ and no one knew what happened back there. Everything inside told her this would be the day she died. This would be the day she no longer remained herself. Louise’s breath hitched as she watched Madame’s red heels walk over the floor. They stopped in front of her.
Louise shook, praying she didn’t let her bowels go right then. The moment between Madame stopping and what came next seemed to last forever, just like her time on Lady of the Lake. And then she felt the tug. Louise shut her eyes as Madame dragged toward ‘the door,’ by her hair. She knew it’d be the last thing she ever saw so she peeked once, and it was at Ann, who watched horrorstruck as her young ally disappeared.
Louise wished she could’ve thanked Ann for being her one true friend on the ship. Just once. It was because of Ann that Louise held onto a bit of hope, a small piece of happiness in an otherwise horrifying world. But she couldn’t thank her. She’d never have the chance. And that was almost as bad as where she was headed.
The door shut.
Louise fell into a chair, her heart pounding so hard she thought it might explode. No clue what would happen next, she dared not look at the woman behind the black desk across from her. Darkness overwhelmed the scene, except for a single light that hung high between the two. Louise lowered her head, waiting, anticipating the inevitable evil she knew would follow.
Madame rested her interlocked fingers on the desk. “Hello, Louise.”
The sound of Madame’s calm voice shook Louise harder than anything else had yet. Her lips trembled, her voice quaking. “Hello, Madame.”
“Do you know why you are here?”
“Because,” Louise whispered, “I didn’t finish cleaning.”
“That’s why you’re in this room. Do you know why you are here?”
Louise had asked herself that a thousand times in the beginning, back when she remembered thinking there might have been a before. She’d spend entire days wondering how it was she came about being on Lady of the Lake, but nothing ever changed. And the possible before became fantasies of alternate lives, so she’d stopped. It didn’t matter why she was on the ship because she was never getting off.
“I don’t know, Madame.”
“A deal was struck here several years ago, one I intend to collect on.”
A chill ran down Louise’s spine. She wanted to ask what Madame was collecting but knew the truth was too terrible, too horrific to process. So she didn’t.
“Aren’t you the least bit curious to know how you ended up here? Why those faint glimpses of something else, something different, still linger from time to time?”
Of course, Louise wanted to say. But she couldn’t muster the words.
“It is because you were chosen. Not by me,” Madame indicated to the wall on her left, “but by her.”
At this, Louise glanced up and noticed for the first time a wall of framed faces. All girls. All similarly aged. And there must’ve been… thousands of them covering every inch of the space. But Louise focused in on one right away, one she knew immediately. Instinctively. Auburn hair, bright green eyes and those freckles she wished she’d had for herself. But something else came with the recognition—a new form of terror that washed through Louise as pieces of the something before started gravitating back together.
“You recognize her… don’t you?”
Louise did. She knew the girl. She knew her somehow, in some way even though she’d never been on the Lady of the Lake before. Not that she could remember.
“Well you should. She’s the one who put you here.”
Louise looked back at Madame but darkness shielded her face. Only her threaded hands sat visible on the desk. Louise had a thousand questions, curiosity mixing with the insurmountable dread rolling around in her stomach.
“I don’t understand.”
“This ship must always hold sixteen girls. That is the deal. No more. No less. And all those faces,” she gestured to the wall again, “are of girls that have been released. But in order for you to be, you must find someone to take your place. Then you can go.”
“Onto the next stage. Or did you want to spend all eternity here?”
“That can be arranged. Why, Joan has spent 151 years onboard Lady of the Lake. Ann…” she laughed, “…you don’t even want to know.”
Dread turned to something more horrific, more terrifying than recognizing the auburn-haired girl. It consumed her until all she felt was the hard rattling of her bones and her heart that felt like a bomb. “I…I still don’t understand.”
“Then how about a history lesson, hmm? In 1833, a ship departed Britain and left for Quebec. Early into its voyage, it hit an iceberg and sunk, and of its passengers on board, 215 died. Traveling to a new school in the west was a class of sixteen girls and their Madame—the only one who suffered life threatening injuries. Not ready to die, she struck a bargain: her life for the souls of her students. They were to remain here, cleaning up her sins for all eternity, unless, of course… they released themselves in exchange for another soul.”
Terror gripped Louise as she put meaning to the words.
“This ship must always hold sixteen girls. That is the deal. No more. No less.” Madame sat forward, her blunt red lips visible under the shadowed face. And then her voice sunk low, to a man’s baritone she’d never heard. “You’re dead, Louise. Hannah killed you so you could take her place here. And if you wish to leave, you must do the same.”
But …but how could she be…
And then Louise remembered the night. The night she met Hannah in the attic while her parents prepared dinner downstairs. Louise loved playing in the attic—it was the perfect scene for make-believe. And she was good at it too. She’d even envisioned her own friend—an auburn-haired girl with green eyes and freckles she’d desired for herself. Hannah, the girl wanted to be called. And Hannah wanted to play a particular game.
She called it no peeking.
“It’s sort of like hide and go seek, but you have to cover your eyes and ears for ten solid seconds. No matter what.”
Louise had agreed and placed her hands over her ears. She’d shut her eyes as she was supposed to and started counting. Louise got to three when she felt the first sharp sting. She opened her eyes as Hannah slid the knife in a second time, and then a third. By the fourth, Louise laid on the ground, choking on her own blood. And then—
The ship. The cockroach-sponges. The endless cleaning, everyday, all day. Louise blinked, patting down her blue sailor suit, feeling for the stab wounds. Her heart pounded frantically, her entire body shaking. She’d had a family, parents—a life. She’d had a before!
“It’s time for a new soul. I want you to go out and bring another back. Do you think you can do that?”
“If not, you’ll stay here until you decide you can.”
And then a terrifying thought struck Louise, one she needed answered immediately, one she’d often contemplated in her deeper moments of thought. “How long have I been here?”
The thin red lips smiled. “Eighty years.”
That meant… that meant…
Louise looked back at the door, the door she’d feared for… for apparently eighty years. And that whole time, it was the key to her departure… if she decided to take it. Should she? Could she? If it meant killing another girl? Louise thought of the others. Did Joan know? Did Ann? She did. Louise knew it immediately. Deep down in her heart, she knew that Ann had known, but decided not to do it. She was too good and pure to be so evil and yet, by doing so, she’d opted to spend eternity in hell. Because that’s where she was, Louise realized. Hell.
“So?” Madame smiled. “Are you ready to leave?”
Louise waited in the bushes.
The soccer game was almost over which meant the kids would come back any minute. She needed to do it quick. And Amber was almost here.
“What’d you say?” the girl ducked her head past the leafy fauna and smiled brightly at the blonde stranger.
“M-my name is Louise. Want to play a game?”