The snow fell thick and heavy, coating the window with a lacy frost. On another day, in another life, the storm and the long shadow it cast within the room would have been cozy, sheltering. Anna would have lit some candles, curled up on the chaise with a plush blanket and a book and propped a steaming mug of cocoa on a nearby table.
Today, however, the snow induced a panic within her. It was a visceral brunt of rage from Mother Nature, and Anna could only endure the pounding pressure, the fury of the flurry until it passed. Feeling helpless, she put her hands over her ears and scrunched her eyes shut. She rocked back and forth, one foot covering the other, her arms squeezed tight to her sides. She was a concave form curling in on itself, spineless and primal.
The knock at the door startled her, caused her to shiver out of the withering, her fingers and toes, elbows and knees unfurling.
“Who is it?”
“It’s Mother, dear. Can you let me in please?”
A rattling at the knob incited another rise of oily panic in Anna, which she tamped down as much as she could. Today, right now, was not the time to lose her tenuous grasp on sanity.
“Coming, Mother,” she said, rising and tightening the belt of her creamy silk robe.
“Honestly, honey, what is wrong with you?”
Rose stalked into the room, her spiked heels clipping against the wooden floor. As she prowled her way to the dress hanging at the front of a boxy wardrobe, one red stem caught on a loop of decorative carpet, causing the elegant woman to wobble.
Rose scowled, glared at her daughter.
“Why do you insist on hauling in these disgusting rugs? I thought I taught you better than that.”
Anna stood silently in the doorway.
“Why aren’t you dressed? Why isn’t your hair and makeup done? Are you serious, Anna? Today, of all days. Have you taken your medication?”
Anna fought the instinct to shrink her body, hunch her shoulders so as to better absorb the barbs her mother aimed in her direction.
“Yes, Mother. I always take it.”
Rose narrowed her eyes.
“I don’t know that I believe you, Anna. I just don’t know what to trust with you. You’re as bad as your father, may he rest in peace.”
Anna looked away as a painful tear surfaced near her lower left lid.
“Oh, stop it,” Rose huffed. “Not today. Today is special.”
“Sit down. Now.”
Her brusque tone left little room to argue, and Anna knew better than to try. Years of therapy had taught her that she could only endure Rose’s force. A different kind of Mother Nature.
Rose clapped her hands.
“Let’s get started.”
She pulled and tugged at Anna’s wispy blond hair, jamming in bobby pins and yanking strands through a curling iron. Anna sat stoically and stared at the empty face reflected back to her in the vanity’s mirror. Rose reached for a bottle of hair spray and spritzed out the thick and heavy hold, drops falling like flakes on Anna’s now helmet-like updo.
“Good. Make up.”
Chemical-spelling lotions and powders slapped across her tender skin, mascara globbed onto her pale eyelashes, a deep, rich red sunk into the crevices of her lips. When Rose stepped back, Anna caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She looked like a younger version of Rose. It was disconcerting. Anna felt her skin crawl, rejecting the phony exterior her mother had painted on.
“Get your dress on now, Anna. It wouldn’t hurt you to smile, you know. There you go, nice and pretty like a good girl.”
Anna felt her cheeks crack at the smile, makeup falling off in flecks to drop onto bare skin. Her robe pooled at her feet, and she strapped on the complicated undergarments Rose had insisted she wear. When she pulled the dress on, it felt light and smooth against her skin, a kiss, whisper. Rose pulled up the long zipper, then stood, hands on hips, assessing her daughter.
“You’ll do, I guess. You’ll do.”
Anna felt oddly like a prized piece of livestock, fattened and groomed and sold to the highest bidder. She rubbed her chilled arms, strove to recall the soothing feel of the fabric.
“Let’s go, Anna. Let’s go. Put on your shoes. That’s a girl.”
Anna tottered to the door, one hand gripping a lifted corner of the frothy gown, the other gingerly patting her painfully tight coif.
“Come on, come on. Chop, chop, Anna. People are waiting. It’s rude to make them sit around and wait for a prima donna.”
Anna nodded and passed through the door, Rose close behind her. As they reached the winding staircase, Rose wrapped talon-like fingers around Anna’s arm.
“Here comes the bride,” she trilled.
The piercing pitch made Anna wince and draw back, but Rose wouldn’t relinquish her hold. Guests milling about the gleaming foyer clapped politely. The smacking of skin against skin, flesh against flesh, was a dull ache running counterpoint to Rose’s shrillness.
The murmurs of “lovely bride,” “fortunate match,” “give it five years” stroked her body, icy cold and smooth. She shivered, again rubbed a hand over goose pimpled flesh.
“Stop that,” Rose hissed. “Go to your fiancé. Now.”
The guests parted, like the Red Sea, Anna thought to herself, allowing her to pass through to the man waiting for her. A man she barely knew. A man she couldn’t stand, couldn’t bear to touch.
Rose pushed at Anna’s back.
She stumbled forward, stopped, picked up the folds of her petticoat and skirt. She walked toward the man, each step weightier than the last until the lifting of each foot felt like pulling it out of dense drifts of snow. The man embraced her, laid a chaste kiss on her cheek. The guests oohed and aahed. Anna screamed, hysterically, silently.
When the man turned, eager to accept the congratulatory handshakes and thumping pats on the back, Anna shifted back, her new shoes sliding against the hardwood floor. Behind her was a French door, its panes glistening, beckoning. With her arm behind her, she quickly and quietly unlatched the door. Her eyes darted from side to side, but no one noticed the bride inching her way out of the regal home, away from the much anticipated ceremony and the lavish reception. The door closed with a click.
Anna continued backward until her slim calf hit snow. It didn’t register until she felt the icy bite of the wet fabric. She swirled, layers of fabric lifting around her. Her back to the house, to the man, to the mother, to her future, she leapt into the snow.
And she ran.
She ran and ran, flying across the field, her pale skin and hair and her wedding gown camouflaged by the strengthening storm. Her breath puffed out in foamy clouds, and she felt the freshness of the air revive her, pinkening her arms and cheeks, brightening her eyes.
She ran until she could run no more, until she reached the stream that bordered the estate. Without a thought, she splashed in. Droplets of water tickled her nose, slid down her cheeks. She fell backwards, arms splayed, eyes closed.
Her head hit a rock that split open her skull with a pop. Her blood pumped out, mixing with the freezing water and the swirling fabrics. Snowflakes fell one by one, covering her, burying her. Those that bussed the water disappeared. Her heels bobbed nearby, hovering, until they floated away, swept along by the gentle current.