Prologue: The Sobriety of life
Penelope Carter smoothed down her prudish black dress. The woman in the mirror earlier had been nothing that Penny recognised. The cotton fabric felt off against her skin that was only used to the sultriness of satin and lace. The neckline of the knee length dress was high, the back buttoned up till her shoulder blades. Her face was barren of any cosmetics, bringing forth her natural pale skin and her tired face. A dry smile overcame her features thinking how her mother would’ve been pleased with her attire if she wasn’t otherwise occupied.
Looking around, Penny was lost. The swarms of people all dressed in black, each of their faces held different degrees of somber commiseration. It was suffocating. She felt detached. It was like she had stepped out of her body and was looking down at her and everything around her from the top of one of the marble pillars holding up the chapel. A sudden waves of remorse coursed through her when the pallbearers walked down the aisle with the casket heavily resting on their shoulders. It all felt too real now.
Rapidly blinking her eyes to keep her tears from falling, she shifted her gaze and fixed it upon the stained glass behind the altar. Nostalgia hit her in the face; her family and she used to come to this church regularly. Being strict catholics, her parents seldom missed the mass. Yet, they couldn’t get Penny to be as god-fearing as they were. Something her mother had always chastised her about; something her mother had always been proud of her oldest daughter about. As a child, the pastor’s words would brush past her, as unremarkable as the whisper of winds on her cardigan clad arms on an autumn evening. She would always be distracted by the dancing spectrum of lights that floated around the room coming in through the bright colours of the stained glass.
And yet, now that she sought for the distraction, nothing but the dull brightness coming from the arrays of lights fixated in the ceilings of the church enveloped her in an unrelenting embrace. She could hear the pitter-patter of the rain outside. The soft sound was as appealing to her as the harps of the bible yet for reasons unknown to her, she felt like this time, it was more like the trumpets, announcing the oncoming of disastrous events. In the silence that had descended upon them since they had arrived, the drops of rains hitting against the concrete pavements of the New York City echoed inside her, swarming her insides with indescribably feeling of warmth.
She was drawn out of her serene reverie by the sniffles of her mother. The white, cotton handkerchief crumbled in her hand was soaked with her tears, her bloodshot eyes witnesses to it. Indeed, she was inconsolable. The sounds of her mother wailing and shouting only a few days before upon receiving the news of the demise of her sister still ran through her ears. Her mother had barely eaten or slept, her cheeks already seemed a little hollow to Penny and the bags under her eyes marred her otherwise flawless complexion. Penny could see her father was struggling to hold in his emotions as well, his jaws tightened to the point it looked painful. But she knew he wouldn’t let go, not in front of all these people. Men with such power and wealth at their disposal couldn’t cry. But Penny hardly saw the need for it now, her family was almost at the verge of bankruptcy anyway. His desperate need to pretend otherwise and hold on to the last crumbs of his dignity repulsed her.
Yet as she saw the casket in front of them, one made out of the finest wood, mahogany, she couldn’t help but wonder, would her parents cried as much if it was her lifeless body lying there? Or would they have buried her in some shabby coffin in some corner grounds of the cemetery while the rest of the world would go on without even realising her absence? She didn’t even want to know the answers to these questions. Even now, standing beside the two people who brought her to this world, she felt like an outsider, a heedless girl you pass by on the sidewalks of a busy street after a long day at work without even sparing her a glance.
The organ music that was fleetingly playing in the background stopped as the priest took his place in front of the altar. “We are gathered here to say farewell to Tiffany Izabel Carter and to commit her into the hands of God,” he began and the sound of her grandmother sobbing behind her followed. Penny’s heart clenched and she felt her own eyes watering, much to her dismay.
“In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the priest continued and the choir sang a hymn that Penny couldn’t recognise.
The prayers that the priest said, it barely registered in her mind. All of his sentences were punctuated by her mother’s fleeting cries. Her mind was reeling, her head too heavy and dizzy to sit up straight. She stared ahead blankly, her thoughts racing in her mind and yet she felt thoughtless. She couldn’t place her finger upon any of what was happening around her or inside her. It was tiring.
She sat there, in the corner of the front row bench, as obedient as a child could be worried about upsetting her parents, wanting the approval of everybody present there. She watched her mother go to stand at the altar with her glazed eyes. Her throat ached from holding back her tears and sobs. Why she felt sad, she didn’t understand.
“Tiffy was… is the most beautiful girl,” Angela Carter started, staring down at her daughter’s face that looked peaceful, like she was in a deep slumber. “My precious daughter. She made us all so proud…”
Penny tuned her mother out, her hoarse voice playing in the background while none of her words were comprehended by her youngest daughter. Her mother’s face appeared wet and soft from all her tears and vulnerable emotions, she had never seen her mother like this. As she went on, she felt her father’s rigid posture shaking just in the slightest beside her, having finally caved into his loss. Yet she felt nothing watching them. If it were her sister in her place, she would have put her arms around them to comfort them and cried along. Penny’s body was frozen in her spot.
Her mother kissed her fingers and placed them on her resting daughter’s forehead. When her knees wobbled walking down from the altar, her husband, Charles Carter rushed to her aid and pulled her into his chest and sat her down gently on the bench before going back to where she had been just a few seconds earlier.
“Tiffany was our first born. The day she was born…”
Penny didn’t want to hear this. Even without her here, she would always triumph on her, stamping all over her bratty younger sister. It had hurt her when her mother refused to let her give an eulogy of her own at her sister’s funeral. She should’ve known it. Perhaps that’s why she didn’t ask her mother why she couldn’t. Instead, she had clumped her mouth shut and left their house in an embarrassing haste.
From her seat, she had a clear vision of her sister. She wore a beautiful, lacy red dress. One that was her favourite. One that made her look like a business grad from a wealthy family who was raised to be a lady. Her hair was fanned out around her face, like a halo. It almost made her look like the angel her parents thought she was. Oh, how terribly wrong they were.
Her grandmother could barely choke her words out when her grandfather swooped in and covered for her. On her way back, her grandmother met her eyes, the sadness in them overwhelmed Penny and she felt her lips tremble. She stood up, following her parents and walked over to Tiffy. She let her gaze linger longer than it usually would before placing a single red rose, Tiffy’s favourite, on her hand before walking to the side to let others see her. From up here, she could see the number of people who had come. The church was full. How many of these people truly knew Tiffany?
The rain was pouring down when they all went to the graveyard. The tiny droplets fell together, pounding down on the ground like with a fierce vengeance. It felt like tiny shards of cold glass on Penny’s face. She stood behind her parents, away from their umbrella, soaking in the rain, feeling cold to her bones. With the final prayers, the casket was lowered, Tiffy’s face now finally lost from her forever. Her mother crumbled to her knees throwing in mud into the six-feet deep grave whilst Penny just stood there, idle.