Author: Michelle Levy
Genre: YA speculative fiction
Title: CUNNINGHAM MANOR
I hadn’t cried yet today. Not that I wasn’t sad, but losing my mother at a young age was something I had been prepared for my whole life. Being prepared didn’t make it hurt any less. There was now a gaping void deep down inside me that would never, ever be filled no matter how hard I might try.
I struggled to remember the last conversation my mother and I had in person, after she’d 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 should’ve …
I wanted to change out of my scratchy wool dress and bury myself in my grief, but the wake hadn’t even started yet. Hundreds 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.
My mother was 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.
I don’t really remember much of our old life back in Manhattan. My earliest childhood memory was of the intimidating iron gate as we drove up to our new home on the coast. I remember crying because I was so scared of it. Later I would come to understand its beauty, but at seven, it looked more like the entrance to a haunted house. Two huge stone pillars flanked either side with giant gas lamps flaming atop each of them. An archway of intricate metalwork reached between the pillars stretching almost two stories high, and below it, two massive gates opened outward like a monster lying on its side, waiting for someone to climb inside its mouth never to be heard from again.
Plus, in my memory, there were dark clouds and lots of thunder and lightning. Or maybe it was night and there was a full moon and wolves howling in the distance. Or maybe I had an overactive imagination.
Cunningham Manor was built in the late 1800’s in the neo-gothic style. Like a scary old European castle. It was beautiful, sure, but also kind of creepy. My great aunt Bea left it to her only living relative, my mother. Being the last heir to the Cunningham estate, my mother felt obligated to restore the dilapidated mansion to its original splendor. Something she would be able to pass along to me when the time came. She had traveled back and forth from the city for months preparing it for our arrival.
I remember being so excited when I saw my room done up in my favorite color: blue. My mother was always a little disappointed that I didn’t like pink or purple like other girls, but she never felt the need to force them on me. It’s not that I wasn’t feminine, I was, I just liked the color blue. Girls can like blue.
The walls were exact the pale blue of glacial ice. The large bed, framed by a tall canopy of ice blue velvet with cream fringe accents, stood in the center. The window seat, piled high with fluffy pillows in varying complimentary shades of blue and cream, overlooked the gardens and the cliff beyond. It was the one room in the house that almost didn’t look like a dreary old castle – aside from the massive stone fireplace at the far wall.
That first night I was so afraid of that fireplace that I made my mother sleep in my room with me. I thought a witch was going to fly down the flue and kidnap me, which wouldn’t be too hard. I could fit inside the fireplace standing up, even on my tiptoes. After the second night I was a little more at ease, but my mother stayed in my room for the whole week just to make sure I was okay. My parents’ bedroom was all the way over in the other wing.
“Miss, Fiona?” Edvina said from the doorway. I’m pretty sure Edvina came with the house – and, I think, was as old as 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 uncharacteristically caring gaze.
“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 were gone.
I sank onto the fluffy, blue velvet bench at my vanity and touched up my make up.
Once 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.
The stairs were on the far side of the three story front entrance, which meant I had to cross along the balcony while all the people below watched me, their eyes filled with pity. I always hated that the stairs weren’t just right smack dab in the center of the house. 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. The faces below were indecipherable from one another. I wouldn’t possibly remember any of their names today. I was usually really good with names and faces, but now it was all just one big blur. What I wouldn’t give for one friendly face.
When I reached the bottom of the staircase a man that worked with my father greeted me with a sympathetic hug. I couldn’t remember his name. He led me across the room toward the large fireplace that welcomed people as they entered the massive front doors. This particular fireplace could fit an entire basketball team 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 massive 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 looked out onto 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 those 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 and quickly blinked the rest back before they followed suit.
A hand on my shoulder startled me. My father looked like he’d 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 fathers 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. The year I outgrew her I cried. 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.