by PK Read

The keyholes on each of the doors are big, the kind that could lead to temptation. Missus sealed the old locks with wax like they're frosted church windows with mysteries inside. The doors still lock and unlock, only for her. I don't know how she does that. But lodging is so hard to come by these days.

The walls and mouldings are the color of rich cream, a piece or two of furniture in each room, creamy as the walls. Like living in a rich cat's milk bowl. We aren't allowed our own decorations, we aren't allowed to paint the walls, we take our shoes off when we come in and rugs collect dust so they aren't allowed either. The floors are bare wood, but smooth with age so there usually aren't any splinters. Clothes stay in closets so there's no clutter.

All you have to do is abide by the rules. The curtains are white and when the morning sun shines it's cheerful as egg yolks.

We share the kitchen. I have the third shelf in the pantry and the middle shelf in the coolbox and only pale food is permitted. Missus says the bright reds and greens and purples of fruit and vegetables are an affront. She has the top shelf of each but there's never anything but jars there, some empty, some full of stuff the same color as what's in the keyholes.

Pale food can include meat as long as it's not red. I don't mind. Mostly I eat porridge and biscuits. The lack of tomatoes or spinach isn't a sacrifice like it might be for some girls.

Lianne is the third girl to live in the other girl's room, since I moved here myself. City girls can be a flighty bunch, says Missus. Country girls know how to keep the place clean and live simple, but country girls are hard to come by. I'm a country girl and there are plenty where I come from, but not many want to move here.

Because everyone knows lodging is hard to find.

And a girl without a roof over her head is a girl better off dead. Missus told me that, but I already knew it from back home. I think Missus might be from the country, too. Originally.

Actually, I'm not sure the stuff in the keyholes in wax. It's more like waxpaper. Thin. I poked it once with a pale toothpick and that left a very small hole. I felt nervous about this, that Missus might think I'd been peeking, but when I checked the next day, the hole was patched like it had never been there. That was right before housemate Number One moved out. Her name was Berla and I only knew her for three days. She was from two cities away and I was surprised she moved away, because it's not easy to find a place to live. Missus says city girls are like that.

The other room, Lianne's room, previously Berla's, is just like mine except that it's on the other side of Missus's room. Missus can hear anything that goes in in either room. The only thing I ever see from Missus's room is a flickering of lights through the wax on the keyholes. They cast their own illumination, like small candles, if I turn out the lights in my own room and watch it. I can see shadows, just barely, that move across the light, and I think this is Missus. The shadows, I mean, not the light.

It's an old place, and there are two doors to each room. One to the hallway, and one to the neighboring room. I suppose that means Missus's room has three doors, but I've never been in her room. For all I know she has more doors to other rooms that go out to the back of the house, but I don't know because I've never been in her room. I'm curious by nature, that's why I poked the hole in the wax to peek. But I did it from Berla's door while she was out, instead of from mine. Because I'm cautious. Anyway, the wax got sealed up again. And a deed you don't see is a deed that never be.

Work is only twenty minutes by foot. Not bad, by comparison to the nearest meadows back home, especially if I was carrying bales and full buckets. The streams of girls and some boys are faster and thicker than the streams back home. Quieter, though, because most of them don't talk much. Especially on the way home at night.

But Berla was chatty. Back home we would have called her a Chatty Cathy, except her name was Berla. One night she came into my room and talked about Missus and those shadows and how the girl before her had moved out so suddenly. I couldn't get to sleep and then I was so tired the next morning that I cut my hand, deeply, and got docked the morning's wages because I bled into the vat instead of on the floor and the boss had to slice that whole section away like meat gone bad and couldn't sell it anymore.

My hands were still bleeding when I got home and I was careful to wash them in the sink and then wipe the sink because I think the red might count as a color and Missus doesn't like color. That was the same night I peeked through the keyhole from Berla's room to see whether any of the stories were true but I couldn't see a thing except white light.

When Berla left Missus said I could eat the food she left in the pantry and the coolbox as long as I cleaned both shelves afterwards. Berla had more food than I did, things I had never eaten. Crackers and meringue and something called pasta, which I like very much. No colors, so permitted. I moved it all to my shelves and arranged it in rows and cleaned the shelves and Missus whispered through my door that night that I was a good girl.

Grusin moved into Berla's room and then it was Grusin's room. Grusin looked nothing like Berla, black-haired where Berla had been brown. I knew when Grusin or Berla had been in the bath because I could see their beautiful hair in the drain. I cleaned it out, sometimes, so they wouldn't get in trouble with Missus. Mine is blond, light cream like whipped egg, yellow like light honeycomb, not that I ever leave any of it for Missus to find.

I've never seen Missus. Not with my own eyes. I know she comes out of her room. The jars move in the kitchen, and we can hear her move in the hallway, but the keyholes are all waxed shut, the doors lock and unlock when we're inside our rooms. Missus likes her privacy. Nights I can hear the thin melodies of some old-timey music playing, but Grusin never did, so we decided the phonograph must be next to my wall. Grusin could hear shuffling, which I don't hear. She thinks Missus dances in her room at night.

Even with the music, I'm not sure it's dancing, but maybe she's dancing on hands and feet. Funambulists can do that, I saw one once. And a man was playing accordion. Berla told me something different. I didn't believe her. Not really.

Grusin got her room the same way I did. Someone at the factory knew of a place, arranged it for us and gave us a note of recommendation which is very friendly considering we had just arrived. Missus only speaks through a door and always says she is indisposed but to slide your recommendation under the door. If she lets you stay you get a key slid under the door. The rules you learn from Missus, or from Berla, or Grusin, or me.

If you learn rules from Missus, they are raspy rules, the kind that make your hair stand on end, like when you're coming down the mountain too late after dusk and then you hear a twig snap in the dark forest.

The rules are easy, easier than back home where you have to know how to call the right animals, how to make the right calls to frighten away the wrong ones, how to make stone soup when the food runs out.

Grusin introduced me to something called a potato, which is an excellent vegetable and a nice change from pasta. The light brown skin counts as yellow. I asked Missus.

I bled one day and went to my room and forgot to clean it up, I felt very badly. This wasn't machine blood, my hands were good and calloused by then, this was just the usual blood—and I went to my room to get a rag to clean it and when I returned, the blood was gone.

When I asked Grusin, she said she'd cleaned it up. Which was considerate, especially with her being a city girl. They aren't known for cleanliness. But Grusin was clean. She's the one who told me that I needed to wash my clothes more often. She said it doesn't matter that I only have one change of clothes.

Grusin explained to me that my stories about Missus couldn't be true, that Berla had just been telling city tales to a country girl. That no one has that many legs, or eats like a spider, except for spiders. This seemed likely enough.

But then Missus rasped through my door, who bled in the bathroom she wanted to know, me or the other girl, and before I could put the truth before the lie, my lie was already out.

When Grusin was gone, I got her potatoes, which was kind of sad. I liked Grusin and I don't know why she left behind her potatoes, which are expensive and lovely, even if they do get stuck in my throat like guilt. But only when they're cold.

I've noticed that when I come back after work, the floors seem smoother and waxed and I suspect this is due to Missus making her rounds around the house. Although I'm not sure why she waxes the floors. Or how, as I've never found any floor wax. She could have a jar of floor wax, creamy and smooth, in her room, which is probably the case. I've noticed that the floor in my room is smoother some days than others, and that the fine blond hair I leave across my closet door, the trick I learned to see if the door's been opened, that hair is gone. I keep my closet and room tidy. I know I am abiding.

Lodging is so hard to come by. Everyone is so hungry these days.

Lianne has red hair, which is a color. But as long as she doesn't leave any of it in the bathroom or any of the other rooms, Missus will probably never know.

Sometimes the light through the keyhole to Missus's room flickers bright as summer lightning. Even sitting on my bed, on the other side of the room, I can see my own hand pressed up against my mouth. It's that bright. I've only seen it twice. The night before Berla left, and the night before Grusin left, when Missus danced so loudly it was like thunder in my room. And there wasn't any music. It's a thumping, too many feet for just one Missus. It's a storm that makes you hide under the bed until it passes.

This confirmed my thinking that it had been wise to poke the hole in the keyhole wax through Berla's door rather than my own.

And to place a few strands of Grusin's black hair, which she always left so carelessly in the drain, across the bottom of the bathtub after that bleeding incident. The lie was out, I had to make it true.

Lianne seemed like a good girl when she got here, even if she did change factories because she said her vat boss got fresh. Her laugh is loud and distracts me from listening to Missus on the other side of the wall, and I might have been able to get used to that, if it weren't for Lianne's nails. She paints her nails bright red like her hands are always bleeding and she doesn't care to make it stop or to clean it off.

I've all but stopped bleeding, from my hands or anywhere else. It's a relief not to worry about cleaning it from the sink or bath.

My curiosity got the best of me yesterday at breakfast and I opened one of the jars on Missus's coolbox shelf. The jar made one of those pops like it was cooked and sealed, popping open a loud hello to you when you open it again.

It smelled of nothing. At first. I pulled my finger away and there was a small swoop where I'd creased the top of the stuff in the jar. I smelled it up close, and put that tallow swoop on my tongue. And then there was more to it. Butter, maybe. Something sweet, something salty. Like sucking on the back of my hand, like a girl's hand.

Lianne had already left and Missus was never to be heard in the morning before dawn. I tried to smudge my finger over the mark in the jar, and then a spoon, but that just made it worse.

In my hurry to work I might have accidentally replaced the jar on Lianne's shelf. I felt guilty about that all day at the factory, enough that I was inattentive and cut my hand for the first time in weeks. Then I was just angry at Lianne for moving the jar. She should be more careful, with her red nails and red hair and loud red laugh.

The lights flickered brightly all night, brighter than I'd ever seen, and Missus's voice rose above a whisper and she danced so hard the boards shook. I knew Lianne wouldn't be there come morning because that's how city girls are. Fickle. Flighty.

And sure enough, the next morning, I peeked into her room. The door to the hallway was open. The floors were waxed smooth, the bed smooth as cream just poured and the door to Missus's room was shut tight. With a single strand of red hair beneath it.

Missus says I can keep Lianne's box of tapioca and her box of rice, if I can figure out how to cook them. This time, she asked me to find us a new girl at the factory. She says I'm a good girl and she wants to teach me how to render. Her voice makes the hair on my arms raise and I don't try to peek through the keyhole any more.

BIO: PK Read is a French-American writer. Previous work has been included in the Bristol Short Story Anthology, Jersey Devil Press, Offshoots and Rind Literary Press. Other work includes a surprisingly successful German-English film dictionary, Film Talk. Currently living in France, trying to reach the end of all the cheese and the next novel-in-progress.