Tuesday, June 12, 2012

5 1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Levy 1st Revision

Author: Michelle Levy
Genre: YA speculative fiction
Title: CUNNINGHAM MANOR - revised

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, only I didn’t take it seriously. She didn’t take it seriously. She always brushed it off as coincidental, superstitious. 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.”

“Thank you.”

“Miss Fiona?”

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, and I whipped around.


But there was no one there. 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. I held on to the cold, ornate iron railing for support. 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. 

It worked.

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.

A gentle hand brushed the tear away, which only made me cry more. 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 didn’t want to 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 father 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. Hot tears flowed freely 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.


  1. I like the changes you've made since the first draft. It seems like you took the critiques seriously without losing your focus. It makes more sense to me now about her mother's death and the significance of her age.

  2. Okay, so I like this a lot better. It feels more woven together, with careful placement of details of the curse, the death of her female family members, the memories of the house. Like you thought about each individual thing and how they contributed to the whole, and then made them contribute to the whole.

    So very well done on that! I have a couple of miscellaneous comments:

    Oooh, I like the addition of this line: "I shouldn’t have treated the stupid curse so lightly."

    The addition of Charlie is intriguing to me. I want to know why he's the only one who can help her through this. But I will ask this... Why would she think he's there? Is she expecting him? It seems strange to see something in the mirror and whip around as if scared, and then ask if it's Charlie. Especially if she's not expecting him to come... Make sense?

    I was confused that the father had entered the drawing room and was wiping his daughter's tears. I would strive to make that clearer. Can she sense his presence when he steps next to her or something? Just to establish that he's there.

    I'm also interested why she allows herself to cry as they lower her mother into the grave. At the beginning of the piece, she says she won't cry until everyone's gone, until she can really give into the grief. She makes it through the wake. Through the eulogy. Through the parade to the cemetery... And then breaks down? In public? It seems strange to me. I sort of wanted to see that break down after everything is done and everyone is gone, a real emotional reward for staying strong for so long.

    Just a thought.

    Hope something helps!

  3. This is much stronger and the emotion is more credible and present. I like the weakness she feels inside at the loss of her mother juxtaposed with the strength she shows through her actions. I am a bit confused about Charlie--with the way she glimpses him in the mirror and then he's not there but she doesn't seem freaked out at all almost made me wonder if he was a ghost or something, a presence she'd grown up with instead of a real person. However that said, I like the inclusion of him, ghost or real person, because it brings more questions into the story about who he is and why he's important to her...especially since he is not present here at such a pinnacle moment to offer support.

    The curse is a bit better dressed as well, and I found myself wondering what all the women died of. Curse suggests a surprising, unforcasted end, rather than getting cancer or suffering a heart attack. I wonder if you could pull the reader in even further and sustain them through this dour moment by alluding to the odd nature of their deaths, but don't tell us how mom died ...yet. IE, Grandmother had died when workmen fixing a chandelier had not tightened the bolts properly and the monstrosity of crystal came crashing down on her. Aunt Bea, who never liked going out at night because of her arthritis, was found in her nightclothes floating in the duck pond, in less than three feet of water. This keeps us reading, especially if the other women perished in odd ways, because we will feel compelled to know how mom died, make sense?

    You could scale back a touch on physical description--I feel that there is just a touch too much, and fingernail details are really all that are needed. That said, you do a great job really cementing the details through memories of her mother, so they felt really authentic!

    Overall, a really good job balancing this hard, sad moment and yet providing enough questions and intrigue to keep the reader reading to find out more. :) Great stuff.

  4. Thank you!!! You guys have some really great suggestions! This is so helpful!

    Angela is on track about Charlie. Or at least that's the impression I want to give at this point. Does it take you completely out of the story or is it enough to leave you wondering? I don't want the reader to be frustrated, but intrigued.

  5. I think you need a touch more, because it left me a bit confused as to whether charlie was real or a ghost, and if the latter, why she wasn't all freaked out. For me, I imagined myself at a time when I'm all focused on something only to look up and find someone standing there in the room watching me...it gives you a little jump, you know? This would be the same if you glimpsed something in the mirror--even someone you cared about and wanted to see, you would still jump a it, have a visceral reaction (heartbeat speeds, or your ribs clench, the breath catches in the throat, something like that). She whips around, but I think just a touch more is needed here. The shock visceral, followed by relief. It's Charlie! She spins, sees he's not there, then disappointment. I do think the disappointment bit is slightly rushed. If she really needed him and he didn't come, it wouldn't be mild disappointment, but deep.

    Hope this helps!



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