December 21st is the most bitter day of winter in Maine. It is also two days before my birthday. This particular 21st of December was one I would not soon forget.
I glanced out the bay window looking out on my garden. Droves of raindrops drowned my flowers, muting their colors. Removing the rose shaped ruby earrings from my earlobes, I did the same to myself. The roses were exchanged for a pair of simple diamond studs, and my usual fuzzy pastel sweater and knee length skirt were replaced with a somber black dress. I could see rain slithering down the window pane behind my reflection in the mirror. Fog had covered the hills outside, so that all of Lilirose, Maine, was enveloped in a cloud of mourning encompassing the Whitechapel Estate, my home.
My name is Kira Narcissa Whitechapel. My father is the heir to the Whitechapel fortune, earned by a massive line of banks that covers the entire US. With that enormous fortune, my father has spent the entirety of my life (nearly twenty years so far) slowly but surely taking control of the entirety of small, 42 square mile, Lilirose. It was never hard for him. Lilirose consists of a small, busy township nestled in a nearly perfectly round valley surrounded by a range of hills. Dotting the hills like freckles is a ring of apple trees, belonging to the Quinn Honeycrisp Orchard, famous for producing the juciest apples in the entire northeast. With the price of living skyrocketing, my father wasn't far from owning that as well.
"Kira, darling, do hurry yourself. It's nearly half past eight. We really must be going."
I locked eyes with my reflection, ignoring the figure that hurried past the doorway barely visible in the mirror. My father's father was the man we were burying today, yet my father had two meetings to attend less than ten minutes after, if all went smoothly, my grandfather was planted in the ground. Not to say I was shocked by his behavior. Both of my sisters, Madigan, the younger and Abbey, the older, had dates planned for this evening, and my mother was going to meet with her bridge club.
Closing the clasp on my silver bracelet, entwined with exotic flowers molded from the same metal, I spared a short moment to look at my easel in the corner. On it was an unfinished painting, one that I'd started with my grandfather before he was rushed to the hospital. A single, bright ray of light illuminated the canvas. Colors flowed ceaselessly into one another, just waiting to cascade across the page. Tears welled in my eyes as the clouds overhead blotted out the sun, and the vivid paint strokes that had just seemed so alive faded into a muted shadow of their former glory. I prayed silently as I stepped through the doorway, hoping for strength to carry myself through the day.
As expected, a slim, black limousine waited patiently by the
fountain that nearly crowded the front courtyard. Standing in the
marble doorway, I could see that Madigan and Abbey, both dressed
in dark frocks that suggested just a bit more than mourning, had
already taken their places in the limousine. Father and Mother
could be heard bickering from upstairs.
"I don't see why we must go to this morbid event anyway. I had so much planned for today!" This from my mother, Sophia.
"I'm sorry, darling, but he was my father. It's rather...expected, you know? Besides, I already told you I'd make it up to you and your blasted bridge club later." This from my father, the insultingly rich by inheritance John Whitechapel.
Had the funeral been left to my parents to plan, it probably would have been put off indefinitely to leave way for their social events and business affairs. As it was, my Aunt Trudy had been given the responsibility, so my parents were forced to attend in order to keep their public appearance intact.
Hearing voices bounce down the staircase, I hurried to the open car door and slid into a corner as far from my siblings as I could manage. Unlike myself, both sisters boasted rich, chocolate brown locks that bounced down their shoulders, framing big, green doll eyes. Their features had been accentuated by much too much makeup. Barely fifteen, Madigan appeared ready to grind on some hopeless club patron. My disapproving presence went seemingly unnoticed by both, whose eyes were so entranced by the reflection in their hand mirrors that I could have torn off my skin and done a jig in my bare bones and neither would have raised an eyebrow. I shifted in my seat, turning to the window.
The gate to Whitechapel Estate lay a good twenty yards away, at the end of a path that wound down the hill, dividing our land from the road that kept our fifteen acres as far from the rest of the town as my father could manage without seeming a bit snobbish. From where I sat, I could see, over a few rolling hills, the center of Lilirose, unusually empty for four days before Christmas. Beyond that, the honeycrisp orchards loomed dark and blurred by the fog, not a hint of color to be seen on such a day as this. I longed for color to break through this grey nightmare.
I knocked my forehead on the window glass as my parents pushed in beside me. Uttering a small, "ow", I covered my face with my hands. The limousine door closed at long last, and I raised my head to meet the blank gaze of my ever punctual parents.
"Gracious, Kira. Did you just escape from the morgue? I thought I taught you to use a makeup palette better than that." my mother asked, barely glancing at me before pulling out her own compact, probably to assure herself that she in no way resembled my pallid assembly of features. She shouldn't have had to look to know she didn't. My sisters clearly inherited their looks from her. Other than the short bob she had her curls styled into, she and my sisters could be carbon copies of one another.
My eyes widened and I had to clench my jaw to keep it from falling off my face. I was struck silent by the complete lack of understanding she showed regarding what she'd just said. I looked from my father to my sisters to see if any of them had been even slightly offended by her comment. My sisters simply stared at me, in silent agreement with my mother.
"Um...I'm not wearing makeup, actually, Mum. Didn't think it was appropriate for the, um, occasion?" I said, prodding for a hint of mourning.
"Oh. Well. Dear, in your case, makeup is always appropriate. I highly recommend it."
My cheeks burned. "Dad!" I pleaded.
My father turned to me, his eyes widening as if seeing me for the first time. I was unsure why, as, when he looked at me, it should have been like looking in a mirror. After all, I inherited my look of 'awkward chic' from him. "No, dear, your mother's right. Try some next time."
Speechless, I returned my gaze to the window, clenching my hands into fists around the thick fabric of my dress.
After a fifteen minute drive to the chapel, most of which was navigating through the collection of laughably oversized dwellings that loomed over Lilirose, our limousine pulled up next to a bulky, jet-black hearse provided by the Ellington Funeral Home, one of many branches owned by my mother's parents. They had been gracious enough to provide their services for the funeral, but not thoughtful enough to attend.
As the car puttered to a stop, I could see disdain swimming in my mother's eyes. I followed her gaze to the doors of the church, where my grandmother was being assisted up the front steps into the lobby. My eyes burned with angry tears. My mother had always disliked my paternal grandparents, and had never quite had the presence of mind to keep her opinions to herself. They supported my love of painting and gardening, while my mother, with my father's silent agreement, found my hobbies to be a waste of time.
I remembered my grandparents visiting from their home in Augusta when I was younger and bringing with them the most beautiful set of paints, kept bright and new within a large, wooden case. My grandfather, an avid painter himself, had taught me to paint that day. I'd become lost in the easel for hours. At least, until my parents returned home. Unaware of their lack of understanding, I'd immediately rushed to show off my handiwork, grandparents beaming with pride in the background. My mother's voice had been a stabbing hiss. What a pitiful waste of time, she'd sneered at me, and, turning to my grandparents, I expected her to do something useful today, not spend it playing. I looked to see my grandparents' faces fall. Looking back, I knew they'd immediately understood how futile any argument would be. Nevertheless, both parties had asked that I leave and had a long, heated discussion. After that, I learned to keep my painting to myself. And, in a fit of compromise, my father reserved some of the land behind our house to become a garden. I knew, in their minds, it was an easy way to get their oddball daughter out of the public eye.
The bell at the top of the bell tower tolled a mournful nine a.m. Seeing the clipped and sharp attitude my mother had adopted with her actions, snapping her purse shut and whirling towards the door without even a glance in my direction, I lost all hope for a meaningful funeral. Now I just hoped she wouldn't cause a scene. Silently, I hurried along behind my family into the chapel, dark clouds swelling with unshed raindrops above.
"Oh, Kira dear. I'm so happy to see you, darling," my grandmother said, hugging me as soon as she saw me. The happiness was genuine. I'd never seen such a brilliant smile on her face. While crowds of people talked or cried quietly, she smiled, full of unknowing bliss. My grandmother suffered from Alzheimers. She still knew who I was, thankfully, and the identity of everyone who attended, but I knew she didn't fully grasp the gravity of the situation. At the wake the night before, I recalled her stepping forward to the casket while the family wept quietly. I had sat quite far back to where I could only see my grandfather's brow and nose peeking over the edge of the coffin, but he looked merely asleep. To the layman, I remembered my grandmother saying, "I can only hope I look that peaceful when I go." Tears had swelled in my eyes as she'd cheerfully thanked the layman and his associates for the beautiful service, innocent as a child.
Standing before me now, she seemed in wonderful health, eyes bright with hope and youth, innocence somehow regained after eighty years. My throat tightened, and I replied, "I'm happy to see you, too. How are you doing?"
She smiled again and replied, "Oh I'm wonderful, dear. It's so good to have the family together again." Before she could say anything else, the priest walked into the lobby. As Grandma looked at him, I saw a bit of the twinkle fade from her eyes and her smile falter. Wordlessly, she clutched my arm and we joined the group of mourners, my parents and siblings trailing nonchalantly behind.
The service was traditionally Catholic, with the priest waving incense ahead of the casket and all. The casket was a lovely deep, cherry wood lined with flawless white satin. Waves upon waves of white lilies flowed over the dark wood, their scent cloying and thick. The flowers did all they could to drown the stench of death that hung heavy in the room. I sat between my mother and siblings while my father joined his sister and brothers beside Grandma. Through the service, I hung my head low, avoiding the irritated gaze of my mother, letting silent tears fall into my lap while my sisters texted their friends. Fear clutched my heart as the previous day's conversations ran through my mind, drowning out the priest's droning speech.
Grandma was too old to care for herself, especially with Alzheimer's rearing its ugly head. My father, with his fifteen bedroom monster of a dwelling was the first to come up in conversation, but he simply would not, in his own words, "have someone lazing about the house, filling my daughter's head with nonsense." His siblings, too stunned to speak, I'm sure, had quietly agreed to place her in a prestigious nursing home in Augusta after the funeral. My heart ached to think of her away from her gorgeous home that had held its own kind of magic for my sisters and I when we were children and still played together. My grandparents' house had always been a sort of mystical place, always filled with new and exciting things to discover in every dusty corner of its Victorian design. Now the house would fall into disrepair, as none of the children would take responsibility for it, and while my grandmother, with her insatiable love for life, would be quickly forgotten, so too would that beautiful old house.
The service drew to a close, and the family formed a line behind the casket. I could hear my sisters chittering away about boys and gossip while my mother spat awful complaints into my father's ear in a hushed voice. My ears burned with embarrassment, and I was, for once, thankful for my grandmother's weak hearing. As we reached the front doors, I saw my chance and ran with it.
"Dad, I'd like to ride to the cemetery with Grandma, please," I said hurriedly, hoping my mother wouldn't hear. Visibly wrestling with the idea, he hmm'ed and hawed over the idea before rolling his eyes and reluctantly agreeing. Honestly, you'd think he believed she'd corrupt me or something. Before he could change his mind, or, Heaven forbid, my mother noticed, I slipped off into the limousine directly behind the hearse.
"Oh Kira, dear! You startled me. Are you riding with me?" Grandma asked, a hand on my arm and head tilted just so I could speak into her good ear.
I smiled, eyes watery and tired from holding back sobs. "Of course! Why wouldn't I?"
"Oh that's wonderful, darling! Absolutely wonderful."
Beneath a blanket of clouds, our procession wound up through the hills that surrounded our small town. Hidden behind the circle of honeycrisp apple trees that served as a barrier between Lilirose and the rest of Maine, there was a sprawling Catholic cemetery, so large that it reached practically out to the coast. It was the only Catholic burial ground in this region of Maine, and my grandparents had had their hearts set on a shared plot inside it since before I was born.
We drove down a gravel path, the ground speckled with small bursts of light that peeked through the tree branches above. The Whitechapel family plot, with spots reserved for my grandparents, paternal aunts and uncles, parents, my siblings, and myself, was in a lovely shaded area beneath an old hemlock tree. Pinecones littered the ground around the plot, but a tent had been placed over the open grave to keep it clear. My heart dropped to the pit of my stomach. I could see my grandfather's coffin suspended over the open grave, flowers still adorning it, ready to be dropped into the earth and forgotten. I suddenly wanted to run back to the house and forget all of this. I couldn't watch this.
My legs shook as I helped my grandmother out of the limousine. We were greeted by three Marines, one of which held a folded flag for my grandmother. One of them was familiar. He'd served under my grandfather in Vietnam and made an appearance in some of the photos my grandfather enjoyed showing off from his sergeant days. All of them were stoic and silent, statues lining a path to goodbye. I was given a seat beside my grandmother while my father sat on my other side in the front row. My stomach swam as I stared at the coffin. Wordlessly, I gripped my grandmother's hand tightly. Smiling at me, she simply patted my hand in reply.
The priest said his bit, and various family members took to the podium to share a light-hearted tale of their time with my grandfather. The priest approached me and asked if I'd like to say a few words. Avoiding his gaze, I shook my head violently. Most of this party didn't notice my presence. I preferred to keep it that way.
At long last, it was my father's turn to speak. I listened with a bowed head, bracing myself for the worst.
I could hear the nerves in his voice as he cleared his throat. "Erm...My father, George Whitechapel III, was, um, a great man. He, uh...raised my siblings and I well and..." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mother pointing at her watch and tapping her toe impatiently. Clearing his throat again, my father went on, his words rushed. "And, well, being in heaven and all that, I suppose this is the end of it. Bye, father." He bowed and hurried back to his seat, whispering something to the priest on his way.
"Alright everyone, gather around while we lower the casket. Quickly, quickly," the priest said. Fury burned my ears and my heart pounded. I watched my family surround the grave and my hands shook with anger. There wasn't a tear to be seen, or a care to be had by any of my siblings, or my parents for that matter. My sisters laughed about some shared joke, stuttering into silence when met by me with a glare. My parents argued in hushed tones. As I looked around the grave, everyone in my family seemed to be occupied with something other than my grandfather's death while I was silently screaming with grief. I could hear blood rushing through my ears, and angry tears rolled down my face. The coffin began to sink into the ground and my breathing became ragged and harsh. My vision swam. Panic swelled at the back of my throat. No one cared. No one but me. As the marine holding the flag handed it gently to my grandmother, I heard her utter a small, sweet, "Thank you. Very much," laced with sorrow. My silent tears became choking sobs, and, falling to my knees, I felt the world go black.
I later awoke to the harsh flash of cameras and the overlapping excited comments of the media, who had waited so patiently for a chance to strike and finally found it. Furious uncles and cousins shoved the vultures of the newspaper away, forming a sort of barricade around us where I'd fallen.
"Excuse me, does your daughter suffer from narcolepsy?"
"Is she an epileptic?"
"So the rumors of her illness are true?"
"Is this why we never see her?"
Questions and hurried voices drowned out the sound of dirt pounding onto the lid of the coffin. I searched for my grandmother and found her in a mob of my family, frightened and bewildered as a child that's lost their parents. Grief swam over me. I'd ruined my own grandfather's funeral. My father swiped me from the ground, his fingers digging into my arm hard enough to bruise. He dragged me to the limousine where my family was already waiting.
"I should have known something like this would happen. You've made a bloody scene! Selfish child!" my father yelled, practically throwing me into the car and slamming the door behind me. He instructed the driver to take us home while he dealt with the media. I knew without looking up that all three women of my family were turned and situated as far from me as physically possible. I had ceased to exist to them again. I pulled my knees up against my chest and hid my face behind them. I wished to escape so fervently as I wept into the fabric of my dress.
By the time we reached home, my father was already there. His
personal car was poised in front of the mansion, ready to drive
him away. However, it seemed he had something to discuss before
he left. He waited in the dining hall, seated at the far end of
the table. His features were stern, and his fingers were laced on
the table in front of him. I hesitated in the doorway.
"Kira, I need to have a short...discussion with you. Sophia, girls, you may go," he said calmly.
"Oh you've really done it now, Cissy," Madigan hissed, shoving me towards the door before running upstairs. My stomach knotted as I took a seat at the close end of the table. Once my mother and sisters had gone, my father rose from his seat.
"Kira, your behavior today was inexcusable."
I blinked, stunned by the comment. "Dad-"
He cut me off with a glare.
"Father..I had a panic attack. I can't exactly control that," I muttered.
"I'll have you check that attitude, young lady," he said, pointing an accusatory finger at me.
"I...apologize, Father. I just...don't do well in public settings," I replied, my gaze falling to my lap in shame.
He threw his hands up. "Well why'd you bother to go then?"
I snapped up to look at him incredulously. "With all due respect, that was my grandfather's funeral. I had to go!"
"You best rear in that tone, missy. So you had to go, did you? Well, I'd say you did a bloody good job of honoring your grandfather's memory. People'll be reading all about the funeral in the newspaper now. Well done, dear. Well. Done."
I blinked away tears. "Father, I..."
"Don't 'Father' me. I don't know what your mother and I did to deserve this, but you'd best start shaping up. All of this anxiety nonsense had best stop. It's absolutely ridiculous."
I recoiled as if slapped. "Father, you can't just stop anxiety or panic attacks. You act as if I'm making this up."
"Why shouldn't I? Everyone knows the middle child acts up to get attention over the other two. Now listen here, Kira, and listen well. I don't want another incident like this. And I won't have one. You will go up to your room and stay there. Far out of the public view, and mine until you get this nonsense sorted out."
My chin trembled. I was no stranger to the rejection of this family. That didn't mean it ever stopped the sting of it. "Yes, sir," I uttered quietly, ascending the stairs in defeat. When I reached the top, I could see out over the hills again. It's not over for you, I told myself, you will escape from here. For starters, I would go visit my grandmother.