She approached me with a golden air and thick parchment sealed in a cream envelope. I turned my body half-away, wanting to get back to my party, knowing what this was. And, more importantly, what was expected of me. Mom must have thought me the stupidest person in the world for this to be a surprise, but her face was open and excited, so I guessed she did. Think I was stupid, that was.
“Can I speak to you for a second, Caroline?”
I smoothed the front of my blouse, willing her to read my body language and scatter. “I’m talking to Zaney right now. Maybe in a minute?”
My friend smiled stiffly. “Oh, it’s okay. Go ahead.”
“It’s your last present, Carol.” Mom teased, but I already knew what was inside. The dog wasn’t going to come if it didn’t sniff out something good. So too bad for her.
“Maybe in a minute,” I replied noncommittally. “So what were you saying about cheer, Zee?”
“Caroline, please,” My mother persisted. I rolled my eyes.
“Okay. Fine. But only for a moment.”
I allowed myself to be pulled away from the lure of mainstream music and chatter, up our winding staircase down the hall to the sewing room. Theresa was already in there, along with a couple of her ancient friends and Mom’s step sister, Ellen. Mom practically shoved me inside and then turned to firmly shut and lock the door behind us.
“Caroline,” one of Theresa’s weathered ladies greeted, inclining her neck. It was a move meant to be regal, but in her old age, it came off as slightly arthritic. I nodded my response.
“I suppose you have some vague idea of why you’re here,” Theresa said, bored. I fixed my grandmother with a cold, calculating stare. There was a reason I called her by her first name, and it was because I didn’t like her. She knew that, I knew that, and we both had come to some unspeaking agreement that we’d dislike each other and be okay with it. But now, seeing her standing here in the sewing room—at the realm of the problem—I was abruptly furious at her.
“I don’t want to be involved in your prissy little group,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest. “I’m not an idiot. I know what you guys do, and I’m not interested.”
Ellen stepped forward, but Theresa reached out a hand to stop her. “She doesn’t have to, you know.”
One of the old ladies—Rosamund, I now recalled—turned her puckered mouth down at the corners, a surprising feat. “Will you listen to us before you make your decision, at least? I’m been a member of the society since my sixteenth birthday and it’s been the happiest part of my life.”
If you’re power hungry and love dictating what people do, I wanted to say, but I kept my mouth shut.
Mom forced the envelope into my hand. “Just have a look, please. That’s all we’re asking.”
I huffed under my breath and unceremoniously tore the envelope down the middle. Theresa gritted her teeth and Rosamund flinched, but the rest remained stoic. I sighed and pulled the enclosed card out. The sunlight coming through the floor-to-ceiling windows caused the raised, curlicue gold embellishments to glint ominously. With an agitated twitch, I flicked it open.
We are proud to present you, Caroline Annabeth Lemaine, the official invitation to be inducted into SEW, also known as the Society for Ethereal Women. As a ‘Seamstress’, you will be given the privilege of voting on the fashions that will be in style each new season. Your decisions will impact the fashion world—everything from what’s made to what ends up in boutiques to what ends up on beautiful bodies all around America. But understand, as a member of SEW and as a ‘Seamstress’, you’ll be sworn to secrecy, discussing upcoming fashion matters only with your local branch of women. Your votes may not be impacted by any such one or any such thing, and you will attend a ceremony where you’ll be sworn-in to the group and promise your dedication and protection of this sacred program.
The rest of the words blurred out, a bunch of nonsense about ages and security measures and stuff like that. The print was unsuspectingly small, difficult to read even for me, in all my twenty-twenty vision glory. I glanced up and at the faces around me, all women crazy enough to have promised some society that they’d keep quiet about clothes of all things, just so long as they got to pick what was in.
I guessed they were dressed stylishly, for their age. And the fact that members got paid a large sum every year from out of clothes profits explained the lavishness of our old victorian home, but I had more pressing matters to attend to. For one, a party was still going on downstairs, one meant to celebrate my sixteenth birthday. And two, Dad was planning on me blowing out the candles soon, and I couldn’t very well miss that.
“Well?” Ellen said when no one else spoke. “What do you think?”
I cast the card a skeptical glance. “I think it’s dumb. It’s purposeless. It’s was
teful. There are so many other ways I could help the world.” I flicked the card back over to mom, who caught it in a harried frenzy.
“Fashion is important,” Rosamund argued gently. “And it’s hardly wasteful. What women wear impacts how they feel about themselves, and how people see them. As a member of the society—” God, would she ever stop calling it that? “—you’ll be making decisions that impact several people.”
“Yeah, and make the others feel bad about themselves when they can’t afford what’s in style. No thanks.” I reached for the knob and gave mom my best, exasperated, wide-eyed look. “Now can I go?”
“Let her, please,” Theresa piped up. “You know I wasn’t keen on asking her, anyway.”
“But you’re the only girl,” Mom said in a small voice. “Left in the family. If you don’t join, then the line’s going to stop with me.”
“Then have another kid,” I said under my breath, avoiding Ellen’s gaze. She couldn’t have any kids, despite years of fertility treatments. Eventually, you just had to give up.
“Carol, I’m forty-seven. I’m not having any more children.”
I huffed as she stared at me, pleading. “Then adopt, okay? I’d like to go back to the party.”
Reluctantly, she pulled the old skeleton key from her pocket. I stomped out into the hall, and they shut the door behind me.
But curiosity forced me to stop before I could descend the steps and creep back over to the door, shuffling in my socks so they wouldn’t hear. I pressed my head to the grainy wood.
“That didn’t go very well,” Rosamund was saying.
“Did you expect it to?” Theresa, of course.
“I thought you were exaggerating.”
“Sadly, no one exaggerates when it comes to Carol.” Mom’s voice was faintly exhausted. “It’s a shame. A pity. I was betting on her saying yes...”
“Well, you should know better. That girl has no class.”
“Mom, stop it. She’s sixteen, not thirty. She’s not supposed to have class.”
I felt my stomach clench. Thank you, Ellen, for defending me.
But my horrid grandmother was relentless. “When I was her age, I was very similar. I had the beauty, and the brians. A wild streak, I’ll even admit. But there’s a difference. I had poise. Elegance. Ethereality, you might say.” She and Rosamund chuckled like schoolgirls at the joke. “I would never have dared to speak to my elders the way she just did us. My mother would have backhanded me quicker than you can say ‘Rude’.”
“What are you suggesting?” Mom replied. “That I slap my daughter?”
“Don’t be so crass, Judith. I’d never propose such a thing. My time was way different than hers. It was the thirties. Fashion was as inadequate a word as say, boondocks. No one said it, where I came from. Hardly anyone knew what it was. But my mother did. And that’s why our family is still in this business. It’s why we have a small fortune.”
I pressed closer, straining to hear.
“It’s why...” Theresa let out a short, agitated grunt. Before I could react, she’d crossed the room and opened the door, exposing me. Mom’s cheeks flamed red. I straightened and crossed my arms over my chest.
“It’s why this girl’s so morbidly curious. Our family is always searching for answers. Well, that’s fashion for you. It’s an idea, then an answer. So, Caroline. What do you say?”
She appraised me with calculating eyes. A faint smirk played on her perfectly-shaped, raspberry mouth. She knew I was going to say no. And something flared within me; a ghost of anger, perhaps, of curiosity. Because I just had to know how she’d react if I surprised her.
And so I did. I said yes.