Saturday, October 18, 2014

Desperate Measures

As always, Katrina gazed in awe at the rows of white dresses that lined the walls, some sparkling, some shimmering – all beautiful. She gripped her mother’s arm and squealed. “That’s it, that’s my dress right there!” She pointed toward a mannequin at the back of the store.
      Her mother smiled. “Come on.”
      The sales assistants, in their crisp black suits and white cotton gloves, were all busy with other customers, and a young blonde girl smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry ma’am, we’ll be with you in a moment.”
      Katrina didn’t mind. She adored bridal stores – could spend hours in them, literally. Ever since she’d been a bridesmaid for Tanya two years ago, she’d been addicted. 
She leaned against the counter. Honestly, the way some of those dresses glittered – especially that puffy-skirted one on the mannequin – well, she wouldn’t find it hard to believe they were alive. 
      A flicker caught her eye, and she looked down towards the mirrors at the back of the store. A thirty-something woman with dark, glossy hair posed, primping the veil in her hair. The sales assistant stooped behind her, adjusting the train and hemline. 
      Katrina smiled again. The snug fitting bodice showed off the woman’s curves perfectly, and the golden ivory of the satin made her tanned skin glow. 
      And the crystalling down the back… Katrina sighed wistfully. Her parents weren’t exactly oozing cash, and she and her fiancé lived the frugal life of students. Her dress was pretty – but it was plain.
      The woman in front of the mirrors turned, flicking the train of the dress out behind her. The crystal beading caught the light, writhing like some fantastical snake around the hem and stirring envy in Katrina’s breast. 
      She turned back to the counter. A dark-haired, stern-faced assistant arched an eyebrow and peered over her glasses.
      Katrina nodded. “Yes, that’s me.” She swallowed, suddenly nervous. 
      “And you’re here to pick up…” The assistant glanced down at the open book on the table. “A Glamorique gown and veil?”
      Katrina nodded again, throat dry. 
The assistant gave a curt jerk of her chin. “I presume you wish to try it on? When was the wedding, again?”
       “Er, tomorrow.”
      The woman’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.
      “Yes, there, er, there were some issues.”
      “I see.” The assistant stared.
      Katrina shuffled. “Um, I’d like to try it on?”
      “I’ll go fetch it, then.” One more glance at the book, then she disappeared into the back room.
      Her mother squeezed Katrina’s arm. “It’ll be okay,” she said. “This time it will be fine.”
      Katrina nodded, hoping she was right.
      She should be right. There was no reason for her not to be. 
      But there had been no reason for her to be wrong last week, either. Or the week before that.
      Katrina’s stomach twisted, and she wished the friendly sales assistant would appear. She’d been so kind last week when Katrina had opened the zip-up bag, only to find they’d sent the wrong one.
      And she’d been wonderful the week before that when the gown had been the right style, but so tiny Katrina couldn’t even get it over her shoulders.
      The sales assistant emerged from the back room, arms overflowing with a white plastic zip-up bag. She strode off towards the change rooms.
      “Off you go,” said Mum in a low voice. “Here, I’ll take your bag.”
      Katrina passed over her handbag and sunglasses, and took a deep breath. “I hope it’s okay this time.”
      “It will be,” said Mum. “It’ll be fine.”
      Katrina squared her shoulders, and marched after the assistant. 
      As she entered the change room, a movement caught her eye. She looked at the mirrors that covered the back wall. They showed nothing out of the ordinary – just a perfect reflection of the empty story.
      That was odd… Katrina creased her brow. When had that dark haired woman left? 
      But the sales assistant had lifted the dress up and stared at her impatiently. Katrina jerked the curtain shut, shrugged out of her cotton day-dress and held up her arms.
      You’d think after so many fittings I’d have ceased to feel vulnerable, she thought, standing with her arms above her head in nothing but a strapless bra and knickers. Apparently not. She shivered, even though the store was warm, and was glad when the satin dropped over her shoulders. 
      Over her shoulders, over her hips… It kept dropping, dropping, until at last it stopped, hovering around her upper thighs.
      Katrina looked down at the dress, then up at the sales assistant, stomach sinking.
      “Um, that’s not supposed to happen, is it?” The dress was supposed to be figure hugging. And in order for it to hug her waist, there was no way it ought to be able to fall down over her hips like that.
      The sales assistant pursed her lips and took hold of the back of the dress. “Let’s do it up first,” she said.
She lifted the dress up so it covered Katrina’s torso, and Katrina hugged it to hold it up. She heard the zipper screaming up its track – but the dress didn’t seem to be getting any tighter. 
      Katrina’s pulse quickened. “What?”
      The assistant’s fingers scrabbled at the inside of the dress. “What size did you say you ordered?”
      “Twelve,” Katrina said, lifting her arms up, holding them away from the dress to keep the sweat off the precious satin. “Why?”
      “The label says fourteen. I’m terribly sorry.”
      Katrina took a deep breath. I am not going to cry. I’m not. She glanced up at her reflection in the tiny plate-sized mirror that hung in the change room. Not going to smash mirrors, either. She exhaled. “Ok. What can I do?”
“You said the wedding is tomorrow?”
      She nodded.
      “Then I’m afraid there’s not much we can do. If you’d come earlier in the day” – Katrina felt like smacking her for that accusatory tone – “then we could have had a seamstress work at it all day to take it in. But now…” She shrugged. 
      Katrina clenched her jaw, fighting tears and the urge to tear the stupid dress right down the seams. 
      “Although…” The sales woman tilted her head.
      Katrina’s heart leaped at the speculative tone. “What, what is it?”
      She hesitated, chewing on her lip. 
      Katrina blinked in surprise. The women who worked in bridal stores were always so professional, so snooty, so perfect. Chewing lower lips seemed right out of character – and it worried her. 
      “Katrina? How’s it going?”
      Her mother’s concerned voice brought her back to earth with a crash. The wedding was tomorrow. She didn’t care what the sales assistant was feeling; if she could help somehow, anyhow, she was willing to hear it. “Um, can’t quite tell yet, Mum. I’ll be out in a minute!” Katrina turned to the sales woman. “Can you do anything or not?” She placed a hand on her hip and tried to project assertiveness. 
      “I… Well, yes,” said the assistant. “But it’s not exactly something we would recommend to anyone, and, in fact, we usually don’t like to think about it at all, but since your situation is so desperate, maybe it’s worth a try.”
      Katrina frowned. Babbling was even less consistent with her mental image of bridal shop assistants. What on earth was going on? Katrina exhaled forcefully. “Look, if it’s going to make this dress miraculously fit me between now and one o’clock tomorrow afternoon, I’m willing to try it. Whatever ‘it’ is.”
      The woman’s face tightened and she gave a curt nod. “We’ll go out then. But it might… take a while. You…” She swallowed, and Katrina’s stomach clenched. “You’d probably better ask your mother to leave. They don’t like… extras.”
      Extras? Now Katrina was beyond confused. “You want me to tell my mother, who has practically organised this wedding single-handedly, who hasn’t slept in the last three days, who is just as stressed about this dress as I am, to go away?” She raised an eyebrow. 
      The sales woman nodded. “Please trust me. It’s much safer that way.”
      Safer? This was starting to sound crazy. 
      Maybe it was. Maybe she should just duck down to the formal wear shop tomorrow morning and purchase the first dress that was white and fitted. Maybe-
      “Katrina? Are you quite sure everything’s fine?”
      She took a deep breath. “Uh, Mum?”
      Footsteps, and then the curtain wavered. “Yes, dear?” she said from right outside.
      “Well, it’s not a big deal, it’s just minor, they just need to do a slight refit. But it’s going to take a while.”
      “But we need to pick the flowers up before five!”
      “I know. You go on. I’ll stay here with the dress. It’ll be fine.”
      “Okay. Message me when you’re done and I’ll come pick you up, okay?”
      “Sure Mum, thanks.”
      “Here’s your bag.”
      Katrina took it and dropped it in a corner of the change room. “Thanks. Bye.”
      She waited until she heard the bell that hung over the front door of the shop ring, then turned to the sales assistant. “Well? I hope whatever you have in mind is worth it.”
      The assistant nodded and smiled. “Definitely.”
      Katrina felt she’d have believed the woman if her face hadn’t been so pale.
      The woman swiped back the curtain. “Go hop up on the step.”
      Katrina gathered up the skirt in her finger tips and tiptoed towards the raised step that took pride of place in front of the mirrors.
      The carpet felt pleasantly scratchy under her feet, and she rubbed her toes against the edge of the step before stepping onto it. She released the skirt and it draped to the floor, the hem a bare centimetre off the carpet. Behind, the assistant fussed over the train, straightening and tidying and brushing of stray bits of fluff.
      Why bother? Thought Katrina, struck by melancholy now that she could see her reflection. She held her arms out. The dress dropped, revealing a good inch of bra. She’s never going to be able to take this in enough overnight.
      The assistant took her time fussing, and Katrina grew distracted. The sky outside had dimmed – probably another storm, and she hoped fervently once again that the weather would stay fine tomorrow – and the lights around the mirrors seemed to yellow. The dresses on the racks and mannequins glittered and sparkled and for a moment Katrina was sure that they moved... Surely they couldn’t sparkle like that by themselves.
      With half closed eyes, Katrina looked back at her reflection and tilted her head. Hm. The dress didn’t look so bad. She smiled dreamily at the shimmering satin. Okay, so it didn’t have crystal beading, and it was devoid of lace or sequins or decoration of any sort… But it was beautiful in its simplicity. 
      The woman came up beside Katrina, a strange look on her face. “Keep quiet,” she said. “They’re coming.”
      The tight, haunted look in her eyes spoke to Katrina’s subconscious and her responded with her voice low and urgent. “What’s happening?”
      “They’re coming,” the woman said again. 
      The sky outside darkened and thunder rumbled. The building trembled, the motion setting the dresses on the racks dancing. The sparkles and glitterings went wild with the movement, and the mirror bloomed with white and gold fireworks. 
      Katrina blinked, trying to clear the blinding lights from her eyes. 
      “They’re here.”
      The woman voice was hoarse, and Katrina turned. She strained, trying to see the woman past the afterimages burned in her vision. Through the flashes she thought she saw fear, raw and open, on the woman’s face. 
      The spots faded, and Katrina looked more closely - but the woman’s face seemed calm.
      “Who are here?” Katrina demanded.
      The woman’s eyes gleamed and she gave a slow, dangerous smile. “We are.”
      Adrenalin shot through Katrina’s body. The woman’s voice was no longer a tense soprano. Instead, it was rich and deep – and had a strange, echoing quality.
      She swallowed. “Um, we?”
      The echoes behind the voice sent shivers up and down Katrina’s spine, and she turned back to the mirror to avoid the woman’s intense gaze. 
      The woman shifted, and in the mirror it looked for a moment like she had numerous limbs, like there was more than a single person occupying her space. “What is it you want?”
      Before Katrina could answer, thunder cracked again. The dresses on the racks shuddered and in the mirror – Katrina gulped – the beading that snaked around the hem of the dress on the nearest mannequin was actually snaking.
      “I will ask you again.” The woman stepped up nose-to-nose with Katrina. “What is it that you desire?”
      “I… I…” Surely her eyes couldn’t be shimmering?
      “Oh come now,” said the woman. “You must want something. Beads, perhaps?” She touched a finger to the sideseam of the gown, beads sprouting and spreading down Katrina’s hip. 
      Katrina gasped.
      “No?” The woman arched an eyebrow. “Crystals perhaps?” she said, drawing her fingers over the neckline of the strapless dress. A few tiny crystals sprang into being, and she tilted her head. “More, maybe?” She rubbed her hand across the bodice, caressing the curve of Katrina’s breasts. 
      Katrina’s heart hammered and she jerked away. The woman pressed harder and despite her fear, Katrina’s body rippled in response. Soon the fabric was encrusted in crystals, but still the woman drew her hand back and forth across Katrina’s breasts.
      Katrina moaned softly, feeling the tingles stretch down between her legs. 
      The woman glanced up, lips quirking at the corners. “No?” she said. “Then what?”
      Katrina panted, chest heaving, legs tingling. “I… I just… I just want it to fit.”
      “Want what to fit?” she said.
      “The… the dress. I want it tighter.” Her heart hammered harder ‘til she thought it might break through her breastbone. 
      The woman pressed her fingertips down and Katrina moaned again. “Tighter I can do.” She placed her hands around Katrina’s waist and the fabric of the dress writhed under her palms, shrinking and tightening. 
      The satin caressed Katrina’s skin and she shuddered. Even through the fear, it felt good. She drew in a breath, trying to calm herself. As she exhaled, the bodice closed around her ribs, her breasts, her waist and hips… She tried to breathe in again. “Tight.”
      The woman laughed and held her tighter. “Oh, you are a precious one.”
      “No,” she gasped. “Too tight.”
      She flinched as the woman reached up to brush her cheek. “Never too tight, my pretty one.”
      The dresses in the mirror danced to the thunder, shimmering, flashing, glittering. The woman stooped and ran a finger around the hem of the gown, beads slithering out behind her fingers. They spread, unfurling like a vine, climbing, creeping, trailing, up and up towards Katrina’s hips, around her waist, over the rise of her breasts, and onwards.
      Katrina squeaked, batting them down. But the beads, free of the dress, continued their upwards climb, twining themselves through her hair, wrapping around her neck. She screamed. “Stop! Stop, make it stop!”
      The woman laughed. “Oh, I will my dear. When your dress is tight enough.” She placed her hands around Katrina’s waist again.
      “It is,” Katrina choked out, tears streaming down her cheeks. “It is! Please, please stop!”
      The woman leaned over Katrina’s shoulder and caught her eye in the mirror. “Never too tight, remember? You asked for tight. Tight it is.” 
      “I’m sorry!” Katrina cried, slapping at the beads that now crawled up her face, over her nose and into her ears. “I’m sorry, just make it stop!”
      The woman laughed, a deep velvety sound. “That, my dear, is what you get for approaching the spirit of the bridal store.” She stepped back and clapped her hands.
      The beads crawled faster, reaching up Katrina’s nose. She opened her mouth to scream, but the beads drowned her out. She sucked in a last gasp of air, clawing frantically at her throat as she inhaled the beads, choking, coughing, falling to the floor as they suffocated her...

      And the woman stood over her, and laughed. 

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