Saturday, November 1, 2008

Mary and the Bear by Zena Wynn

Mary Elizabeth Brown sat in the crowded church, numb with grief and an assortment of other complicated emotions she just didn’t have the energy to examine closely. The last few days had been a hellish whirlwind of activity, culminating today as they gathered to pay their last respects to the woman lying in the casket—her twin sister, Barbara Ann Brown-Remington, more affectionately known as Babs.

Every now and then, stray comments drifted to Mary Elizabeth’s ears above the softly playing music.

“Oh, no.”

“What a shame, she was so young.”

“She was such a beautiful person. An angel, really.”

That last comment almost pierced through the numbness and brought a smile to her face. An angel? If only they knew, she thought. Babs thrived on being wicked, on pushing the limits. Unfortunately, it was Mary Elizabeth who usually ended up suffering because of her schemes.

Mary Elizabeth allowed her gaze to drift around the church. The first two pews on the right were reserved for family. Her sister’s husband of seven years, Charles A. Remington, III, sat the end of the pew, near the center aisle and closest to the casket. Seated next to him were her mother, Susan Brown, and then her father, Richard. From where Mary Elizabeth was seated, at the opposite end of the pew, huddled in the corner, she could see that the knuckles of her mother’s hand were white from the grip she had on her father’s hand. Her other hand, which was placed on Charles’s knee in a silent show of support, was also clenched. There was no other family present.

Lying in the casket, Babs looked like the angel she‘d been compared to—long, naturally blonde hair, a porcelain complexion, and stunning blue eyes hid behind closed eyelids framed with long eyelashes. With her figure, she could have been a swimsuit model. She’d loved showing off her long, toned body and large breasts. She’d played the role of the naive, beautiful blonde so well that even now, not many realized that behind that china-doll appearance was a very, shrewd mind.

Only two people knew the true nature behind the angelic look, Babs and herself. Mary Elizabeth would be taking that truth with her to her own grave. No one would believe her stories any way. Babs had perfected her angelic act while still in the cradle. Her parents had certainly been fooled. They’d worshipped the ground she’d walked on. And her husband? Totally clueless as to the true nature of the woman he’d married.

As far as Charles was concerned, his marriage was the stuff of fairytales, with him in the role of the rich, handsome prince who rescued the beautiful yet poor princess from her life of drudgery, giving her a life of luxury. In return, the grateful princess had dedicated her every moment to showering the love she felt for the handsome prince by seeing to his every need.

If only that were true. The reality was that the princess died while sneaking away to meet her likewise married boss for an illicit weekend affair. There were only two people left alive in this world who knew where she’d really been heading, and neither one of them were talking. One of them, because he had too much to lose. As for herself, Babs had sworn her to secrecy. Just another one of the hundreds she’d kept for Babs over their thirty-two years of life.

Though they were twins, Mary Elizabeth was the exact opposite of her sister in appearance and nature. While Babs was tall, standing five-eleven in her stocking feet; Mary Elizabeth was short, only five-four. Babs had long flowing hair that was so fine it resembled a baby’s, while Mary Elizabeth’s hair was thick, coarse, and perpetually frizzy. So opposite were they in appearance that most people had to be told they were sisters, never mind twins. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d heard, “This is your sister?”

The service had started while she reminisced. Mary Elizabeth came to attention only to realize they were at the part of the service she dreaded most. It was time to walk around for one last view of the body. Time to say her final goodbyes. Charles was against having a graveside ceremony, for which she would be eternally grateful. First, the family would be escorted past the casket. Afterwards, they were to line up in the vestibule to greet the mourners and accept their condolences. Then, she would finally be able to go home, and hopefully get some rest.

She hadn’t had a moment to herself since she’d received the phone call informing her of Babs’ death. Charles called her first, leaving it to Mary Elizabeth to break the news to her parents. Upon hearing the news, her mother had to be tranquillized. Her father just sat there, gazing at nothing. She’d spent the last week at her parent’s house, running interference, answering the phones and taking care of her parents, scared to leave them alone for any length of time. When she wasn’t busy with them, she was helping Charles.

Charles went first. He stood stoically by the casket, the blank expression on his face masking his feelings as he took one final look at his wife. Mary Elizabeth’s heart hurt for him. If the last week had been hard on anyone, it was Charles. He’d been a rock throughout this whole ordeal, but Mary Elizabeth knew he had to be hurting, losing his wife so suddenly. When he’d stood there longer than seemed warranted, the funeral director discreetly urged him to move on. They were on a timed schedule and there were still a lot of people waiting for their turn.

Next came her mother, supported on one side by her father and on the other by a funeral attendant. During the service, she’d held it together surprisingly well until she stood next to the casket. With a loud cry, she threw herself across the open casket, sobbing. “God, why? Why did it have to be my baby? If one of them had to die, why couldn’t it have been Mary Elizabeth?”

Her father and the attendant pulled on the distraught woman, struggling to get her to release the casket and move on. Her father whispered something into her mother’s ear that Mary Elizabeth couldn’t quite hear over all of the wailing her mother was doing. This continued for some time until her mother finally nodded at whatever he was saying and released her hold, allowing them to lead her away.

Mary Elizabeth went rigid as pain and embarrassment pierced through the shield around her emotions, making her want to crawl into a hole and hide. She was grateful for the veil she wore that partially covered her face. She could feel sympathetic glances sliding her way in the heavy silence of the church. She knew that she wasn’t her mother’s favorite, but it was something entirely different to hear her mother’s declaration, and to have everyone else there hear it as well. It was beyond humiliating.

With the ease of years of practice, Mary Elizabeth shoved the hurt deep down inside. Then, wrapping her dignity around her like a cloak, she stepped up to the casket. She looked impassively at the body lying there. She didn’t think of it as her sister. Her sister had been vibrantly alive, not this wooden thing lying here. A stray thought crossed her mind. Maybe now I can have my own life. She pushed the disturbing thought aside, ashamed to be having thoughts like that when her sister was dead. She walked away from the casket before she could be prompted and joined her family in the vestibule.

Standing in the receiving line with the others, she greeted mourners as they left the sanctuary. There were long-time family friends, friends of Babs and Charles, neighbors, co-workers, and country club members all wishing to express their sorrow at the family’s loss. There were so many people that they all began to blur. She shook hands by rote, with whichever person was standing before her.

That is, until she heard a familiar voice and looked into the face of the one person she was happy to see. Kiesha Morgan stood before her. Standing protectively at her side was an amazing specimen of manhood, clearly devoted to her. Kiesha was more than her boss. She was her friend. Kiesha owned a chain of consignment stores where Mary Elizabeth was employed as one of the assistance sales managers.

“Mary Elizabeth, I’m so sorry for your loss. I wish I could have been here sooner.” Kiesha was in the middle of relocating to a small town in North Carolina and was only back in Pirate’s Cove tying up a few loose ends.

“Thank you. Just you being here means more than you realize.” Of all the people here, Kiesha was the only person to whom she really felt close.

“I know this is neither the time nor the place, but when you get the chance, give me a call. I have some business I want to discuss with you.”

“Okay.” She wanted to know more but like Kiesha said, this was neither the time nor the place. Already the line was backing up and people were getting impatient. After giving Kiesha a final hug, she allowed her to move on. After about an hour, the church was finally empty and the family was free to go home. She was glad to see the last of them go. Her feet were killing her.

“Are you coming by the house to get something to eat, or going to your parents? There‘s plenty and you need to eat,” Charles said. Though they weren’t close, Charles took his role as brother-in-law seriously.

“Neither. I’m heading home. Tomorrow’s a work day and I have a lot to do between now and then.” Besides, if she didn’t get some time alone soon she was going to scream.

“How can you go to work as if nothing has happened?” her mother asked in a shrill voice. “My Babs is dead,” her mother wailed, bringing her handkerchief to her eyes again to mop up the fresh flood of tears.

“Susan, leave the girl alone. She’s got to earn a living. There’s nothing she can do for Babs now.” Mary Elizabeth was stunned that her dad came to her defense, something he’d never done before in her life.

Taking advantage of her mother’s shock, she gave her father and Charles a hug, and squeezed her mom’s hand before quickly walking out the door. God, she was glad that was over. These last few days had been trying. Maybe now things could get back to normal. Well, as normal as possible with Babs gone. It was still hard to believe. There was a hole in her heart where her sister used to be.

Unlike most twins, she and Babs hadn’t had the most loving of relationships. She’d loved her sister but couldn’t always say that she’d liked her. Mary Elizabeth never imagined Babs would die. Babs had always been there, and Mary Elizabeth assumed she always would. She got in her car and headed home. Like her father said, there was nothing she could do for Babs now. It was time to pick up the dangling pieces of her life.