As young girls, everything was a contest between me and Amelia. How many more names on my dance card than hers? How many more valentines did Amelia receive than me? Who had more boys call on her in the front parlor or sit with her on the porch swing? It was a sisterly rivalry, it wasn’t mean spirited and when it came to the men, Amelia was usually the winner. But Amelia owned my heart as much as theirs. Of course, I was smarter than her, she was a bit daft and had no interest in anything beyond boys and ribbons. And my how she drew the boys to her without even trying. They couldn’t resist her. Her pale skin and lively, dark, eyes that darted around the room looking for fun in every corner. Her smile always looked like she had a secret and her long hands looked so elegant, even without gloves.
We weren’t sisters, at least by blood. My parents took Amelia in when mama’s cousin died giving birth. We had the means and mama was insistent that it would look bad to leave her to charity since her father was no good. We were barely 4 and with only a few months difference between us, we grew up thick as thieves. I never needed any other friend, I always had Amelia and she always had me. I was a brash and bossy child, demanding, and mama said, troublesomely curious, but My ‘Melia was gentle and sweet, and she was mine. I believe to this day, it is my god given calling to protect her, but hard as I tried, I couldn’t protect her from everything.
I guess of all the fellas that came through our parlor, I considered Thomas the least likely candidate to pique Amelia’s interest let alone to win her hand. Thomas was my beau first, but Amelia was never one to let any man slip out of her grasp. Slightly effeminate with a disdainful attitude, I didn’t think Thomas would interest her because he bored me. After a few socials together I found Thomas to be rude and too much a dandy for my liking. For some reason though, Amelia took notice of him, and once Amelia took notice, there was no distracting her from the object of her attention. Thomas was eager, maybe too eager, to jilt me and court her but I wasn’t terribly peeved. Any boy who was so fickle his head could be turned right in my parlor wasn’t really worth any effort to me anyways, and I wasn’t needing to find a husband.
Amelia, she loved the fussiness that was Thomas. He was clean and never smelled of sweat she said. His clothes were pressed and his hands smooth with clean nails. His family was up and coming in manufacturing. He had the makings of a gentleman she said, and she wanted a gentleman. Thomas’s father was a self-made man and he felt Thomas should know how to work and how to live on the wage he earned and so, to us all, it seemed Thomas was gainfully employed, had a level head, with a bright future. Mama knew of my fondness for Amelia and she humored me by making sure she was treated as my social equal in public, but she made sure Amelia knew her comfort was dependent on our benevolence in private. Maybe that is why Amelia was so eager to land a “good” husband?
Mama did settle a tidy sum on Amelia as a wedding gift, but it certainly wasn’t a fortune in anybody’s eyes, especially Thomas’s, he had expected more. Amelia and Thomas set up house in a nice little neighborhood across town. I was able to go and stay with her and play house whenever I liked. Thomas was ever so pretentious and made sure everyone knew they had electricity, a telephone and he had his ice delivered every day. But before the end of the first year, Thomas had begun a pattern of misuse with Amelia. He would ignore her even when she spoke directly to him, as if she was not even in the room. At social events or in public he would act overly solicitous of her every word while being ever so critical of her housekeeping and manners, even of her voice and elocution, to whomever was around them, shopkeepers, friends or family, it did not matter. He would say in that imperious tone of his, the ugliest and most mean-spirited things to crush her soul.
By the second year, Amelia began to lose her rosy color and cheerfulness. Mama said it was the baby, but after a while there was always a crease on her forehead, as if everything was too bright and she was bewildered by the world around her.
During the summer months of that third year, I spent most of my days with My ‘Melia and baby, trying to cheer her up and coax her happiness back out. Sometimes for a few, brief, moments she would forget her troubles and the harshness of her situation, and be a girl with me again, but that ended every evening as it was time for Thomas to come home. Each evening she ran through the house making sure everything was done as Thomas liked it. I’m not sure why it mattered to her, at this point she had to know he was never going to be happy with anything she did. Corinna, the day girl was quick to leave as soon as Thomas came in so she wouldn’t have to listen to him belittle his wife to her. I wanted to run with Corinna sometimes, but I refused to let Thomas bully me, or keep me away and I am not above confessing, I knew I got under his skin and I wanted it that way. Sometimes I would do things to aggravate him on purpose so that he would turn on me and not Amelia. By this time, I had my Papa’s money and my mother’s snobbishness. I could handle myself.
That July was so hot. Thomas would send Amelia to draw him a cool bath in the evening and make her stand there with his towel while he bathed. Some days he would make her hold the electric fan he had bought himself and tell her which way to direct it for his comfort while he bathed. The fan was plugged into the light, like everything was in those days, and Amelia had to be careful to keep the cord away from the water and Thomas luxuriated in her discomfort and humiliation even more than he did in the cool the water.
To this day I don’t know what happened that night. I know that the lights began to flicker in the house and then everything went dark while I was laying baby down. I went into the hall to see what was wrong and ran into an ashen faced Amelia who was shivering as if she was having a fit. Grabbing my hand Amelia began to pull me down the hall while repeating over and over, “I didn’t mean to do it…”
I followed her not conceiving what she meant or what was to come. Walking into the bathroom, Thomas was still in the large, formidable white tub. I pulled back, not sure why I was going into a man’s bath. Amelia continued to babble hysterically as she tugged me forward so I could see Thomas’s face, his eyes were protruding strangely, and his mouth hung open in terror. I could see the fan hanging from its cord, lying in the water near Thomas’s leg. Grabbing Amelia by the shoulders, I shook her, and asked her what happened.
“I didn’t mean to do it…” she cried.
What? What had she done? How did this happen? As reality hit me, I knew I had to protect My ‘Melia from whatever came next. Amelia grabbed the towel and draped it across Thomas’s naked body in the tub, as if she was not willing for him to be exposed to prying eyes just yet and turned to me crying and needing me to fix this for her.
Taking her hand, I guided her into the hallway and gently pulled the bathroom door shut. “Melia, I need you to calm down now. I have to get the constable and the doctor. Can you tell them there’s been an accident?” Shaking her head no, Amelia stared at me with red rimmed eyes. “Amelia, listen to me, we have to tell the constable Thomas has had an accident while he was bathing. He’s had a terrible, terrible, accident.”
In those brief moments we both understood, as only sisters can, that we must be united and protect each other. I never asked her what happened, and we’ve never spoke of it in these 30 years since, but I’ve never let her out of my sight over these many years, either.