The snow fell thick and heavy, coating the window with a lacy frost. On another day, in another life, Anna would’ve welcomed the storm and the long shadow it cast within the room. She 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. A fire would have sparked and spit heat into her cozy suite. She would have felt safe.
Today, however, the snow induced a panic within her; Anna felt the plummeting, sharp crystals as a visceral brunt of rage from Mother Nature, and she 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 shriveling, her fingers and toes, elbows and knees unfurling.
“Who is it?”
“It’s mother, dear. Can you please let me in?”
A rattling at the knob incited another rise of oily panic, which Anna tamped down as much as she could. Today 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? How long does it take to answer the door? What are you doing in there? Are you ready?”
Rose stalked into the room, her spiked heels clipping against the wooden floor. As she prowled her way to the voluminous, milky dress hanging at the front of the boxy wardrobe, one red stem caught on a loop of decorative carpet, causing the elegant woman to wobble.
Rose scowled at her daughter.
“Why do you insist on hauling in these disgusting rugs? They’re horrible, like someone vomited spools of thread. I thought I taught you better than that. What kind of style is this?”
Anna stood silently in the doorway as Rose wiggled her foot more securely into the strappy stiletto. Diamonds winked at her ears and her wrists, and a cold ruby hung at her décolletage. Her slim fingers remained bare of all fine jewels, of rose and yellow and white golds. She smoothed down her scarlet skirts and ran a hand over her artificially blond hair before turning to her daughter.
“Why aren’t you ready to put your dress on? 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, to hunch her shoulders so as to better absorb the stacked barbs her mother aimed in her direction.
“Yes, Mother. I always take it.”
Rose narrowed her green eyes, tastefully shadowed in a sparkling charcoal.
“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. You’re just going to have to pull it together today. I have neither the time nor the patience to accommodate you.”
Anna looked away as a painful tear surfaced near her lower left lid. She balled her fists to control the grief and the show of emotion. She couldn’t appear weak, especially not now, not like this, in front of her mother.
“Oh, stop it,” Rose huffed. “Not today. Today is special.”
“Sit down. Now. We clearly have work to do.”
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, and the bracelets danced up and down her thin forearms.
“Let’s get started.”
She pulled and tugged at Anna’s long, wispy hair, jamming in bobby pins and yanking strands through a curling iron. Anna sat stoically and stared at the empty face reflected back at her in the vanity’s mirror. Rose reached for a bottle of hair spray and spritzed out the thick and heavy hold. Drops fell like flakes on Anna’s now helmet-like updo.
“Good. Make up.”
Chemical-smelling lotions and powders slapped across her tender skin, mascara globbed onto her pale eyelashes, a deep, rich crimson 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 her mother. It was disconcerting. Anna felt her skin crawl, rejecting the phony exterior Rose had painted on.
The woman herself leaned in to examine her own reflection. Anna noticed the collection of wrinkles at the bridge of her mother’s nose, the fillers that gave Rose rounder, softer cheeks. She noticed Rose sliding a glance in her direction, and though Anna couldn’t understand why, she saw envy, resentment and a raw yearning pass over Rose’s plucked and pampered visage.
“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 dropping off in flecks to land on bare, ivory skin. Her blue robe pooled at her feet, and she strapped on the complicated undergarments Rose had insisted she wear; they gathered the loose skin from her weight loss and smoothed the puckered skin the cellulite had refused to concede. When Anna pulled the dress on, however, 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 painful, 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, spacious foyer clapped. More guests, attracted by the commotion, streamed in from adjacent rooms and likewise applauded politely. For Anna, the smacking of skin against skin, flesh against flesh, was a dull ache running counterpoint to Rose’s shrillness.
As Anna descended the wide marble stairs, 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 tulle petticoats and skirt. She walked toward the man, each step weightier than the last until the lifting of each foot felt like she was pulling it out of dense drifts of snow. The man, well-muscled and clean-shaven and with the air of someone used to power and prestige, embraced her, laid a chaste kiss on her cheek. She felt his soft lips pierce her skin. The guests oohed and aahed. Anna screamed, silently, hysterically.
She couldn’t get her lips to spread into a smile, and her hands began to tremble. Her heart hummed, her head lightened as she thought bleakly of her life. Her father’s death, not six months earlier; her mother’s quick matchmaking with the man she’d barely known in school, a boy who used to poke at her jiggly arms and thighs and laugh with his friends; the superficial well wishes from those she knew were consumed with more material matters than happiness.
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. Across the grand ballroom, where women clad in sequins and pearls and men in shiny tuxedos plucked delicate amuses-bouches from silver platters, a French door, its panes glistening, beckoned.
Anna twisted her way through the room, weaving between full champagne flutes that were the victims of grand gestures. None of the guests acknowledged the bride with the sad eyes and stunning gown, so immersed were they in the event of the season. With her arm behind her, Anna quickly and quietly unlatched the door. Her eyes darted from side to side as she inched her way out of the stately home, away from the much-anticipated ceremony and the lavish reception. The door closed with a click.
Anna continued backward until her calf hit snow. It didn’t register until she felt the icy bite of the wet fabric. She whirled, layers of fabric lifting around her. She looked back once at her mother, a woman whose lovely face and fashionable dress belied her greedy and competitive nature. Rose was in her element, flirting with the latest widower, her mouth stretched wide in laughter, her body leaning forward, her hand draped on his arm. Anna knew that, given enough time, Rose would once again claw her way to the top of the financial and social pyramid, looking regally down at those beneath her, Anna included.
With her back to the house, to the man, to the mother, to her future, Anna leapt into the snow.
And she ran.
She ran and ran, flying across the field, past the stables and the tennis courts and the small cemetery that housed the still upright, shiny tombstone of her father. Anna’s pale skin and hair and her wedding gown were camouflaged by the strengthening storm as she streaked away from the mansion. Her legs, which had once dragged her body forward, now pistoned in the heaps of snow. Her breath puffed out in foamy clouds, and the freshness of the air revived 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. From the pocket of her dress, an orange bottle swam out, the pills inside rattling with the force of the current. The make up washed off, and the hair loosened from its pins to dance around the young woman’s beautiful, serene face. Snowflakes, burying her in a pure, shallow grave, fell one by one. Those that bussed the water disappeared. Her heels, caked in dirt, the satin ruined by moisture, bobbed nearby, hovering, until they floated away, swept along by the stream.
She was free.