Grandmother's face was as unsmiling in death as it had been in life. I stared down at the casket and waited to feel something. Grief. Anger. Anything. The light from the other room threw jagged shadows on her face, making it look wrinkled and strange. Memories surfaced as I stared—the stories she told, all the fights and arguments. But I felt nothing. Nothing at all.
"Don't be sad." I looked up. Father was standing at my elbow. He stared down at her, clasping his hands loosely behind his back. I couldn't think of anything to say. I hadn't expected death to be so awkward. Everyone talks about the grief, but not about the stiffness, the fumbling for the right things to say, the feeling like you're stuck in a play and you're the only one without a script. I nodded and turned away without saying anything, escaping back through the darkened rows of chairs. The suffocating scent of too many flowers followed me.
The lights were still blazing in the reception area. It was stuffy, the room crammed full of talking strangers. They all knew how to play the part, knew about hushed voices and red-rimmed eyes, knew what to say in front of a corpse. I felt conspicuous. I didn't know a single person, even though they were all probably relatives. I wedged myself into a corner and stared at the frayed carpet, daring someone to approach me. No one did. I was ready to leave, had been ready to leave since I set foot in the funeral parlor, but I had to wait on father and knew without asking that we wouldn't go until the will was read. I scuffed at a patch of chewing gum next to the wall and wondered if I could sneak outside without being noticed.
The lawyer arrived before I made up my mind. Everyone stopped talking as he walked through the door. He was a short man in a navy suit that looked almost cheerful in the sea of black. He herded everyone into another worn-out room with brisk efficiency, and I felt a surge of affection for him and his blue suit. Here was another person who didn't belong in this gathering of mourners.
I sat down near the back of the room and sank as low into my chair as I could get. Father chose a seat near the opposite wall, and I relaxed a bit. I didn't know if he really hadn't noticed me, or if he just felt awkward trying to think of more things to talk to me about. Either way I was glad. Then I noticed who sat in front of him and groaned, sinking even lower in my seat. My Aunt Dora and her daughter Isabella were here. I squinted at them through the rows of chairs, but couldn't make out much beyond Isabella's cascade of blonde curls and Aunt Dora's dark, tightly wound bun. Hadn't I endured enough tonight already?
I scanned the rest of the room warily, but there were no more unpleasant surprises. A man with pale hair leaned against the doorframe and seemed to be making the same kind of survey, and my gaze lingered on him. Was he a relative? An acquaintance? Isabella's boyfriend? He seemed out of place too, although I couldn't say why. He was dressed in a black suit that looked identical to every other black suit in the room. He was tall, taller than me, and his face was full of sharp angles. Whoever he was, he must've felt my gaze. He frowned in my direction and turned away to sit down.
The buzz of conversation finally faded away to a few coughs. The lawyer walked to the front of the room and snapped open his briefcase, pulling out a manila folder. "I won't keep you long," he said. "I'm here to read the Last Will and Testament of the late Eira Cooper." He glanced down at the papers he was holding. "This is the Last Will and Testament of me, Eira Penelope Cooper, being sound of both mind and memory. I do hereby revoke all prior wills and codicils of any kind previously made..." I tuned him out, watching the assembled people and assigning them all names and occupations. It had been a game my mother and I used to play when I was very young.
"… executor, herein after named, to pay all funeral expenses and…." The lawyer talked on. I ran out of occupations and began to go back through and assign them all complicated love lives. I gave the blond man a tragic past and a dead fiancée. Isabella got living short man with a double chin. But this game grew as old as the first. I just wanted to go home and go to bed. I looked longingly at the empty lobby, where at least I could fidget to my heart's content, but, like he was reading my mind, Father chose that moment to glance back at me and frown. I looked away, feeling twelve again.
"To my great-grandniece, Elena Morgan Willoughby, I hereby bequeath my floor harp and all accessories belonging therewith…."
"To my nephew, Cian Cooper, I leave my library. May he find both wisdom and…."
I didn't pay attention to anything else read until the lawyer finally paused. A sudden tension filled the room. I lifted my head. "…and I bequeath my house and property, and all the remaining portion of my estate, to my granddaughter, Arianne Willoughby."
I didn't move, certain that I'd misheard. Arianne Willoughby was me. Why would Grandmother leave me her house?
"Could you please repeat that?" Aunt Dora had risen to her feet, her lips clamped together, fingers pressing hard into the back of the seat in front of her. The lawyer rustled his papers and tugged at his tie. He looked a little uncomfortable under Aunt Dora's narrow-eyed stare, but he obeyed.
"I leave my house and property, and all the remaining portion of my estate, to my granddaughter, Arianne Willoughby. May she hold it well, or relinquish it with honor." Aunt Dora sat back down, her face hard. The lawyer continued into a dense jumble of legal details that nobody listened to. The entire room was staring at me, and no one was smiling. Except my father. He was smiling. Father never smiled. I shifted in my seat, feeling like I'd somehow missed something very, very important.
"Well, that's it, folks," the lawyer's voice interrupted once again as he closed his briefcase with a snap. "I'm terribly sorry to have intruded on such a sad occasion. Good night." He offered a hesitant wave and left the room with the air of an escaping convict. I longed to follow.
As soon as he left, everyone else stood. They were all still staring at me. It was very difficult to avoid eye contact with that many pairs of eyes watching you. The silence continued a long minute while I examined my shoelaces, and then the room erupted into a hushed buzz. It sounded like an angry beehive. I stayed where I was, not sure what had just happened or what I was supposed to do. Aunt Dora was still staring at me, her face looking even more pinched and beaky than usual. Several people seemed about to approach, but my father reached me first. For once I was relieved to see him. "Come on, Arianne, we're leaving," he said. I followed him through the chairs and down the aisle, back out into the damp night air.
"What happened?" I asked, as soon as we were in the car.
He glanced over at me, his dark hair gleaming in the light of a streetlamp. "Mother left her property to you," he said, sticking the keys in the ignition.
"Why would she do that?" I said. "Why was everyone so upset about it? Aunt Dora looked like she was about to choke someone."
"Isadora always looks like that," said Father. I waited, but he didn't say any more.
"What about everyone else?" I asked. He reversed out of the parking lot and pretended not to hear me.
We were silent for the rest of the drive back to the apartment. Silence had become a habit between us long ago. People always assumed we were close, since Mother died when I was so young. I even looked like Father, with the same dark hair and pale eyes, but I often got the feeling he didn't know what to do with a daughter. He was frequently away on business, and when he looked at me he always seemed a little surprised, like he'd forgotten he had a child. When I was little I used to imagine I had real parents somewhere, who would come and take me away.
I gazed at the foggy city streets, scowling at nothing in particular. Had Grandmother been wealthier than I realized? If her estate was more than just her small house, it could help pay for college, which would be nice. I leaned my head against the window and sighed. I just wanted to be finished with the funeral. Every time I took a breath I could still smell the flowers and see her lifeless face.
When the headlights finally lit up the driveway, I was up the steps and through the front door almost before Father had stopped the car. "Arianne," he called out when I would have disappeared into the house. "Wait a moment." I stood impatiently on the porch as he came around the driveway. "Pack a bag, and be quick," he told me as he climbed the steps. "We're leaving tonight for my mother's house. Your house."
Author's Note: Hey out there, internet people. Thanks for reading! I welcome feedback of any kind, so let me know what you think.