From the moment she wakes up, Sophia can tell something’s wrong.
She glares up at the blurry face hovering over her, scooting back against her pillows out of reflex as she blinks sleep away. The room is still dark, the first hints of murky light barely filtering through the curtains, and for a moment she wonders if she’s face-to-face with a bumbling burglar before she registers the flame-red hair standing out against the gloom.
“Mmf,” she grumbles, and bats at the hand still lingering at her shoulder. “Don’t you know it’s rude to shake someone awake before dawn?”
Cinders snorts a little. “I could say something about the pot and the kettle, but I won’t.”
“You just did,” Sophia shoots back. She pushes herself upright, stretching kinks out of her shoulders, and narrows her eyes at her stepsister.
Even in the ungodly-morning-hours’ pitiful attempts at sunlight, she can see the weary tension on Cinders’ face, dark circles under her eyes standing out like soot smudges against her pale skin. You look like a raccoon is the first thing that springs to mind, but for some reason she bites her tongue, and tries to push away the uneasy feeling tightening her chest.
“What’s going on?” she says instead. “Assuming there’s actually a reason you saw fit to interrupt the nice dream I was having.”
“Yes,” Cinders replies, slowly. “There is.”
She takes a deep breath and lets it out in a long sigh, and somehow it makes her look even more tired. “The doctor’s downstairs,” she says. “Carmosa has…passed away.”
She pauses and meets Sophia’s eyes, waiting, her lower lip caught between her teeth. Sophia says nothing.
“One of the servants found her not long ago,” Cinders continues. “The doctor says she died in her sleep. Peacefully, no pain.”
Silence falls again, then stretches, lingering like an unwelcome houseguest that won’t take a hint. Even the stupid cricket that lives right outside Sophia’s window fails to strike up its usual chirping.
“Does Gloria know?” Sophia finally says. Because she has to say something, and even she knows that ‘oh’ or ‘so what?’ probably wouldn’t be the best response.
Cinders shakes her head. “Not yet. I’m going to wake her up in a minute, but I thought I would tell you first.”
“Well, thanks for that,” Sophia says. Somehow she can’t keep acid from dripping into her tone. “I’d rather you wake me up than be jolted awake by her anguished screeching.”
A pang of regret hits her even before she sees the frown cross Cinders’ face. She can almost taste the bile left over from the words, the old, familiar tang souring the back of her throat.
“I know, I know,” she says, a little too loudly, rushing the words out before Cinders can say anything. “I should be more understanding and considerate of my sister’s feelings. Actually, I should probably be overcome with grief too, right? Shouldn’t I be wailing and tearing my clothes?”
She raises her chin, ready and waiting for the lecture, or perhaps just the reproachful look or the disappointed sigh. Instead, Cinders only watches her a moment, then reaches forward to give her shoulder a brief squeeze.
“I’m not going to tell you what to feel, Sophia.” Her voice is soft, even gentle. “Everyone has their own methods for dealing with death. I know I learned that from watching my father after my mother died.” Her eyes slide toward the window, unfocused and shadowed before she shakes off the memory with a visible effort. “And your relationship with Carmosa was…complicated at best. You deserve the time and space to process it in your own way.”
“Great,” Sophia says. She folds her arms, pressing down tight against her ribs. “Then I think I’m going to process it by going back to sleep.”
“If that’s what you want.” Cinders steps away from the bed, turning toward the door. “I’ll see you downstairs later, okay? When you’re ready.”
She listens for the click of the door’s latch before she slides back down against the pillows, pulling the covers up over her head to block out the spreading sunlight.
She waits and waits, but she doesn’t fall back asleep.
Black is a terrible color on Gloria.
Sophia stands half-slumped against the drawing room wall, as far as she can get from the throng of mourners and well-wishers, and watches her sister scurry around the room. Gloria never seems to stand still for more than a moment or two, just long enough to snap a command at the servants or accept condolences from one of the guests, her eyes misting and lips turning down in an expression that makes her look more like a pouting child than a bereaved daughter. Her skin is almost absurdly pale in the dark dress, hardly any color in her face aside from red lips painted just a shade too bright.
If I didn’t know better, I might think she was the corpse instead of Carmosa, Sophia thinks, not bothering to hide her scowl. Especially since she’s back to mimicking Carmosa’s every move—bossing everyone around and acting like she’s the world’s most perfect hostess. And I’m back to being the worthless brat who skulks in the corner and hates everything.
She sighs and lets her head fall back against the wall, eyes tracing the spot where the ceiling paint used to crack, before Cinders had it covered over with a fresh coat. If she squints, she imagines she can still see the fissures, even through the shiny new paint layered overtop.
She snorts. Just another fitting metaphor for our lives.
Her name is hissed more than spoken, and she turns her head to see Gloria thundering in her direction. Her sister’s eyes are narrowed to ice-blue slits and her perfectly coiffed hair swirls around her shoulders with each indignant stomp.
“Why are you standing back here sulking?” Gloria demands. “You should be out here helping me—do you have any idea how much effort it takes to keep everything running smoothly when there are so many guests in the house?”
“Give it a rest, Gloria.” Sophia rolls her eyes. “This entire thing is a joke, anyway. None of these people are here because they cared about Carmosa. Most of them didn’t even know her that well. They’re only here because the estate is suddenly rich and important again.”
Gloria’s face tightens in annoyance, her lips drawn into a thin line. “Here you go again,” she says, voice pitched high with exasperation. “Back to your cynical, childish—“
“Like you’re one to talk about slipping into old habits,” Sophia interrupts. “You don’t even see what you’re doing, do you? Carmosa dies, and you instantly go right back to imitating her every move like some squawking parrot. I’ve got news for you, dear sister: one Carmosa was enough. The world doesn’t need a replacement.”
Gloria makes a noise like steam escaping from a kettle. “Is it too much to ask that you forget your bitterness for just one day?”
“Yep.” Sophia pushes herself off the wall, lips twisting in a humorless smirk. “I’m going to my room. Good luck with all the guests. If anyone asks about me, tell them I can’t come down because I’m overwhelmed with grief. Or something.”
She walks off without waiting for a response, barricading herself in her room and plopping down on the bed. She snatches up a book off her nightstand, letting it fall open to a random page.
Sisters, she thinks with a snort, staring down at the muddled words in front of her. And mothers. Who needs them, anyway?
By the time Cinders comes to find her several hours later, she hasn’t read more than a handful of pages.
“Did Gloria send you up here to talk some sense into me?” Sophia asks, barely glancing up from her book.
“I just wanted to come make sure you were all right.” Cinders stops next to the bed, balancing herself on the edge of the nightstand. “I know this hasn’t been easy for anyone.”
I’m fine, now go away. The words balance on the tip of Sophia’s tongue, but she swallows them with a sigh. She knows her stepsister’s stubbornness too well to think she’ll be satisfied with that kind of an answer.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” she says instead. “We turned out the way we did because of Carmosa, but when you took over the house, things got…better. Between Gloria and me, I mean. You would think that Carmosa dying would be the last step to finally letting us break free of her influence, but instead we fall right back into our old habits from when she was still running the house.” She glares down at the hapless book. “Talk about something not making any sense.”
She doesn’t look at Cinders, but she can picture the little half-smile on her face when she answers. “I think it makes sense, in a way,” she says. “Despite how difficult Carmosa was to deal with, she was…a bit of a safety net, I suppose. Especially for Gloria. Even I went to her for advice sometimes, and you know how badly she treated me.” She pauses before continuing, measuring her words. “You know that’s why Gloria’s acting the way she is, right? She’s just scared. She needs time to come to terms with the fact that she’s fully in control of her own future, now. That can be really overwhelming, if you think about it—especially for someone like Gloria who’s spent her whole life trying to live up to someone else’s expectations.”
“I guess.” Sophia finally abandons the book, tossing it aside and leaning back against the headboard. “Still, it sure would be nice if things could be straightforward for once. Instead of all twisted and convoluted like some novel by an author who thinks they’re more clever than they really are.”
“Maybe.” Cinders smiles. “But you and I both know that life is rarely like that. People are complex. They don’t fit neatly into little boxes and they don’t always do the things we expect them to do—or the things we wish they would do.”
Sophia looks up at her, letting a smirk cross her face. “Sometimes you sound pretty damn preachy. You know that, right?”
Cinders laughs, her eyes crinkling at the corners. “Okay, maybe. But you still know I’m right.”
After a moment she sobers, leaning forward to look Sophia in the eye. “But I didn’t come up here to preach at you,” she says quietly. “If I know you, you’re probably beating yourself up over everything that’s going on. I’m not going to tell you to just snap out of it, because it’s never that easy. But it’s okay to take a step backward, sometimes. It doesn’t have to mean that you’re stuck wallowing in old habits forever, or that you and Gloria go back to being bitter enemies. The two of you should talk, when you’re ready. I think she’d be open to it.”
Sophia looks down at her bedspread, eyes tracing the patterns, and lets Cinders’ words roll around in her head. Outside her window, the cricket begins to chirp, as though in encouragement.
“I’ll think about it,” she finally says.
“That’s all I ask.” Cinders straightens, letting out a yawn. “I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. Think I’m going to head off to bed.”
“Okay,” Sophia says. “See you tomorrow.”
Her eyes stray to the window after Cinders leaves. Dusk melts into night, and moonlight spills through the open curtains to leave patterns on the floor. She thinks about slipping under the covers and letting sleep erase her churning thoughts, but then realizes she doesn’t feel that tired at all.
“Figures,” she mutters.
Sighing, she hauls herself out of bed and picks up her candle, letting its light guide her steps as she pads down the hallway toward the kitchen. The rooms are dark, the guests all long gone. Even the servants have turned in for the night.
It’s just as well, because she really doesn’t feel like running into anyone at the moment—
The thought has barely crossed her mind before she sees a light shining from the kitchen. She pauses to listen, and hears the faint swish of a long skirt sweeping over the floor.
She side-steps the creaking floorboard and stops at the kitchen entrance, peeking inside to see Gloria standing at the pantry with her hands on her hips. The black dress is gone, replaced by a ruffled nightgown, and her normally-perfect hair looks mussed and threaded with tangles.
For a moment, Sophia considers turning around and heading back to her room. Instead, she lingers by the entrance, curling her fingers around the door frame.
“Couldn’t sleep?” she asks.
Gloria whirls to face her, eyes wide and startled before she relaxes.
“Oh,” she says. “It’s you.”
Sophia tries hard not to roll her eyes. “Eloquent as always, sis.”
Gloria looks as though she’s about to retort, but turns back toward the pantry instead, clearing her throat delicately. “I thought I would try to find something to settle my stomach,” she says. “But nothing looks appetizing.”
“I came down to make some tea,” Sophia hears herself respond. “I could make some for you too, I guess. If you want.”
Gloria blinks, brows furrowed, as though she’s searching for an ulterior motive. “That would be…nice.”
Strained silence falls, broken only by the banging of the cupboard door as Sophia rummages for the teakettle and cups. Gloria stands off to the side, fingers twisting together, eyes looking everywhere but at her sister.
“It’s not like I’m glad she’s dead,” Sophia finally blurts out.
Gloria folds her arms, raising an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Really.” Sophia thumps the kettle down on the counter with a bit more force than intended. “Not that she wasn’t almost impossible to live with, but…she was still my mother. I don’t know. It’s strange.”
“So…” Gloria begins, the words hesitant. “It’s like you’re not sure what to feel?”
“Something like that.” Sophia wrinkles her nose. “The whole thing is just stupid. I know, I know.” She raises a hand, leveling a scowl in Gloria’s direction. “I’m being petulant and childish.”
“I…” Gloria wets her lips, brushing an invisible crumb off the counter. “I wasn’t going to say that.”
“You sure didn’t have a problem with saying it this afternoon,” Sophia mutters.
“Perhaps I was sliding back into old habits, just a little,” Gloria admits. “It was very stressful, with the funeral and all the guests and preparations. I just wanted to make sure everything was—”
Gloria wraps her arms tight around herself. “I suppose.”
“You know we’re never going to be perfect, right?” Sophia says, but the words are soft instead of cruel. “Not the house, not you, and certainly not me. Possibly not even Cinders.”
That draws a small smile from Gloria, half-hidden in the candlelight.
“And…” Sophia goes on. “Maybe that’s okay.” She looks down, running her thumb along the rim of the teapot. “I’ve been slipping back into old habits, too. But at least this time, we both realize we’re doing it. And that’s better than nothing.”
“That’s something I think we can agree on,” Gloria says.
Sophia looks up to meet her eyes, and finds herself returning her sister’s smile. It feels strange, but…not a bad kind of strange.
It’s a small step, she thinks. But even a small step forward is better than taking a step backward, or standing stagnant in one place.
And for now, just maybe, that’s enough.