Monday, June 18, 2012
Author: Michelle Levy
Genre: YA speculative fiction
Title: CUNNINGHAM MANOR
I wanted nothing more than to change out of my scratchy wool dress and bury myself in my grief, but the wake hadn’t even started yet. Dozens of people who didn’t really know my mother were on their way to our home, and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t attend my own mother’s wake in sweats.
Even though it was only three months ago, I struggled to remember the last conversation we’d had in person. She’d just helped me move to New York for college. She told me how proud she was of me. She hugged me tight and kissed my forehead. I shouldn’t have been in such a rush for her to leave. I should’ve savored the moment. I should’ve told her how much she meant to me, how she made me the person I am, how much I loved her. I shouldn’t have treated the stupid “curse” so lightly. Losing my mother at a young age was something I had been prepared for my whole life. The mystery illness that, once figured out, would probably be named after our family. But I never took it seriously. She didn’t take it seriously. She always brushed it off as coincidental, superstitious. She was healthy as a horse right up until the day she dropped dead. Just like all the others. If I hadn’t been so selfish, I could have had more time with her. Parsons could have waited.
She was only forty-nine years old. Just three years shy of the longest living female in the Cunningham family bloodline. My grandmother died when she was forty-seven. My great-grandmother died when she was only forty-five. My great aunt died at the ripe old age of fifty-two. That’s when we moved to Cunningham Manor. I was seven.
“Miss Fiona?” Edvina appeared in the doorway. I’m pretty sure Edvina came with the house. “The guests are beginning to arrive,” she said in her thick German accent.
“Thank you, Edvina. I’ll be down in a minute. Has my father been notified?”
“Kent has gone to fetch him.”
I turned to meet her glassy gaze. I wasn’t sure, but I think she might have even allowed herself to cry. Her usually ruddy complexion was splotchy and her papery eyelids were a little puffy.
“Miss Catherine was a true angel.” She didn’t wait for a reply. She silently closed the door behind her, leaving me to collect myself for the guests.
I felt my eyes get hot as tears threatened to escape, but I refused to allow them freedom until I could surrender to them completely. After the guests had gone.
I sank onto the fluffy, blue velvet bench at my vanity and touched up my make up. Something caught my eye in the mirror. Hope fluttered in my ribcage and I whipped around expectantly.
But there was no one there. That glimmer of hope now sat in the pit of my stomach, weighing me down as if I’d swallowed a sizable stone. Why hadn’t he come? I needed him. He was the only person that could help me through this.
After I had successfully collected myself, I made my way down the long, stone hallway toward the grand staircase. Somber voices crescendoed from below with each step.
I had to cross all the way along the balcony to get to the stairway, which meant I had to endure all the people below watching me, their eyes filled with pity. I always hated that the stairs weren’t just right in the center; I hated those extra twenty or so steps I had to take to reach them. I hated it even more today. The staircase seemed to lengthen with each step as if I would never reach the bottom. I was usually really good with names and faces, but today it was all just one big blur. What I wouldn’t give to have Charlie here.
When I reached the bottom of the staircase a man that worked with my father greeted me with a sympathetic hug. He led me across the room toward the fireplace that welcomed people as they entered the massive front doors. The fireplace could easily fit five of me standing shoulder to shoulder without ducking. The heat generated from the fire embraced me in its warmth as the man introduced me to a few of the other early arrivals, some of whom I vaguely recognized. I was relieved to see my father’s boss among this small group. At least I could remember his name: Franklin, though at that moment I couldn’t remember if that was his first or last name.
“Fiona …” Franklin sighed heavily, then he placed his bulbous hands on my shoulders and nodded like he didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to say either so we sort of bobbed our heads at each other for an uncomfortable minute until I finally excused myself to “check on something.” I walked briskly toward the drawing room, thinking that if I looked like I was going somewhere with a purpose, people wouldn’t try to stop me.
The drawing room was empty except for the coffin at the far end. I hesitated slightly before descending the five steps that led into the two-story room, and found myself being pulled toward the coffin.
I couldn’t help but think how the cathedral ceilings had never looked more like a church. The gothic arched windows that stood behind my mother overlooked the grounds and I thought about how my mother and I used to sit at those windows on rainy days and read in silence, occasionally looking out into the distance to ponder our books. Then we would crack up when the other one caught us. Especially if the book made us cry.
I smiled warmly at the memory as I gazed down at my mother. She looked so beautiful. She always looked beautiful. Her light, golden hair perfectly coifed in a gentle curl, cascaded around her shoulders. I always wanted her hair but I was blessed with my father’s chestnut brown, bone-straight locks. I did, however, get my mother’s brown eyes with light golden flecks. I wished more than anything for one more chance to look into her eyes again. I wanted to place my hand on her shoulder and wake her up. I wanted her to put her lithe arms around me and hold me just one more time. I felt a tear roll down the side of my cheek.
My father’s sadness cloaked the room as he entered and I fought its antagonistic attempt to pull me under even further. His gentle hand brushed away the remnants of my stray tear, which only encouraged a few more tears to follow. My father had obviously been crying. His usually hazel-green eyes were a brilliant green – probably in contrast to the red skin around them. I couldn’t speak because I knew I’d really lose it. He seemed to be thinking the same thing so he just placed his arm around my waist and we gazed down at my mother resting peacefully.
I leaned into my father’s embrace. He was tall. I got that from him. He was six-foot-four, I was a little over five-ten. My mother was a petite five-foot-three. My father loved that about her. I cried the year I outgrew her. I was twelve. I was so upset that I’d never find a boy taller than me. And I didn’t until high school. I got my father’s build too. I hated it. My mother envied my broad shoulders. She called me statuesque. She said that models would covet my frame. She always tried to put a positive spin on everything. I loved that about her. I would miss that about her.
One of the servants pulled my father away to check on some final details before the service. I stayed with my mother, treasuring the last few minutes I would ever get to see her beautiful face again. Forty-nine years? Is that how long I’ll get? Will I last as long as Aunt Bea? When you’re eighteen you don’t want to be plagued with the thought of your own mortality but it’s something I’ve been faced with since I was born. We just didn’t know the cause of the “curse.” We didn’t even know if my mother would be affected by it. Now that burden was on me.
My father motioned to me from the entrance of the room, signaling that they were about to usher the guests in.
I was sort of numb throughout the service. I barely remember giving my eulogy. My father had asked me to speak, as he didn’t want to become emotional in front of his peers. He did cry a little as I spoke. I did not. I seemed to have managed to successfully sever my emotional synapses for the time being.
After a spectacular rendition of “Con Te Partiro” sung by one of the tenors from the Metropolitan Opera – a friend of my father’s boss – everyone paraded out to the family cemetery. My father and I stayed behind to say our final goodbyes before my mother’s body would forever be sealed into the glossy, cherry wood box in which she would sleep for eternity.
The pallbearers kept their distance until we finally signaled them. We followed behind my mother toward the family plot at the far end of the property next to the cliff. My mother always said it would be the perfect final resting place for her. She assured me that when the time came she would be happy there. I found her sitting out near her mother’s grave on many an occasion. People might think graveyards are creepy or morbid, but my mother thought they were beautiful and peaceful. I have always agreed.
The tenor sang “Ave Maria” as they lowered my mother into the earth. The song floated through the air encircling me in its warm embrace. A few hot tears escaped down my cheeks, but no one paid attention to anything but the melody coming from those angelic vocal chords. I closed my eyes and squeezed my father’s hand as the last note carried off toward the ocean as if it was lifting my mother’s spirit to wherever it is that spirits go.
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