I’m so excited to begin posting this story! It’s a total work in progress and I’m posting as fast as I proof read it, before it goes to my beta. Then it will be edited before publication and should appear this fall in an anthology with Jenni James, tentatively called My Dear Phantom!
Blurb: Lily Shapcote used to long for adventure. After the death of her mother, she only wishes for life to return to the way it used to be. Ignored by her family, her thoughts take a fanciful turn. Meeting new neighbors gives her everything she’s yearned for: acceptance, affection, and adventure. But what if it isn’t real? Will she be enticed to stay in a fake world or will she return to reality?
Thunder cracked overhead, jolting Lily from her sleep. Pushing her arms up, she stood from the rain-slickened ground and dashed wildly to the nearest tree for shelter. Drops continued to filter through the leaves, pelting her like angry tears but she did not feel them. Her eyes were riveted on the headstone she had just laid beside. A cry came from her lips when she saw the headstone cracked down the middle. A round of thunder shook the earth and seemed to be laughing at Lily’s fright. How was it that lightning could strike so near her without any ill effects?
By the same token, she wondered what it would feel like to feel that alive. To feel a fire spark in her body and run through her veins would be more than she felt in her whole life, especially in the last few weeks following her mother’s death. And if she did not survive the strike, might that not be for the better? What was there worth living for at this point? The rain lessened, and Lily’s frantic heartbeat calmed. At last, she left her refuge for the dirty lane and her family’s parsonage. As her boots sunk into the damp earth, she noted the headstone that bore her mother’s name, and dates of birth and death was split asunder much like her heart.
“I’m home,” she called upon entering and tossing her russet brown bonnet that had seen better days, on the table. She knew perfectly well her words were heard by no one. No housekeeper or maid greeted her. No smiling mother or sisters sat in the drawing room awaiting her return. Her father seldom stirred from his library. A dark cloud of mourning hovered over the Shapcote home, and Lily doubted it would ever lift.
Not caring about the puddles left in her wake, she drudged upstairs to change into dry clothes. The familiar room brought no comfort. Weeks ago, Lily had fallen ill with putrid fever. The doctor recommended the room be cleared and left dark and bare. Now, heavy drapes covered the window, blocking all sunlight. All furniture had been removed save a table and chair next to the bed. Mrs. Shapcote had sat in the chair countless hours nursing her middle daughter before succumbing to the illness herself. After being insensible with fever for a week, Lily recovered. As her eyes fluttered open, she witnessed her mother faint from illness. During her rapid decline, Lily was not allowed to visit her mother. Afterwards, Lily couldn’t bear to change a thing about the room. Potion bottles littered the table with weeks’ worth of dust collecting around them. The book Mrs. Shapcote had been reading aloud still sat on the chair. Lily reverently trailed her hands over the worn cover on her way to the closet.
Knowing her sisters were busy and not wanting to bother a maid, she awkwardly dressed in a fresh black bombazine gown. It was time to switch to lavender, but Lily could not bear the thought. Her grief of her mother’s passing — and because of her — would never fade like the colours of mourning suggested. Already, it seemed her family adapted to the loss of their wife and mother. They moved forward at an alarming pace. Lily frowned in the mirror as laughter from the drawing room below drifted to her ears. When had she last laughed? Would her voice even make the noise?
“Maybe Helen will have a piece of humorous gossip,” she muttered to herself as she patted down the folds of her gown.
Helen had been her best friend since their infancy, but they could not be less alike. The older they got, the more different they became. Helen now bemoaned her lack of suitors and sat amongst the spinsters at dances. At twenty, she already believed her youth was over. Helen’s plain looks and relative poverty did not help matters, neither did the lack of eligible gentlemen in the area, but Lily would never give up hope for a love match. Even if her sister downstairs encouraged a gentleman twice her age, of weak constitution and disgusting breath.
“I wish you were here, Mama,” Lily said and stared intently at the mirror. Sometimes, when she concentrated hard enough, she could nearly swear her mother would appear to counsel her. Not just in the mirror. Lily knew that would be a mere flight of fancy. But she sometimes thought she heard her mother’s voice or felt her caress. Then, in another moment it would seem to be only the wind.
Deciding she could not spend all day upstairs, Lily left her chamber. When she returned below the water was cleaned up as if by ghostly who worked only out of sight. Sighing, Lily entered the drawing room.
Her younger sister, Marigold, sat near the window with a book open on her lap but of no interest. Mari looked longingly at the table of hat fashioning supplies and then the clock. She had one hour of reading left before she could begin recreational pursuits. Ever since she ran away from school a month ago, she had been allowed to remain at home but with very strict rules. The carefree fifteen year old apparently chaffed at the restrictions.
Violet, the eldest sister, sat near the other window. Her suitor, Edward Norton, the local squire, and patron of Mr. Shapcote, sat at her side. Neither even looked in Lily’s direction as they continued their conversation in near privacy.
Lily picked up embroidery she had begun before her mother’s death. They had planned it together. Upon completion, it would read “The sun always rises,” with a sun rising over mountains covered in mist and a garden of sunflowers tilting their heads up in the sun’s direction. Lily did not complete the text before falling ill. She had determined to work on the garden instead, but thus far only had grass and green stalks.
Does the sun really always rise, Mama? she thought to herself. As though in answer, a small ray broke through the clouds and shined in the room, dancing off a crystal dish and sending fragments of light through the chamber.
A half an hour later, Mr. Norton took his leave, Violet fiddled with a fan, Mari declared herself too tired to read and Lily had barely ten stitches completed. She rolled her eyes at herself. Since her illness, her concentration had been broken. Was it any wonder her family mostly ignored her if she sat staring at her embroidery for minutes on end? She was fortunate they did not consider her touched in the head and send her away.
Mari gathered hat supplies and plopped next to Lily. “I think working on this bonnet would be just the thing to soothe my head, but we have nothing but old ribbon.”
“What do you need new ribbons for?”
“Just because I am the youngest and not out does not mean I have to exist solely on your hand me downs! Catherine Landing is two years younger than me and more fashionable! She’s a child!”
“So are you,” Lily said. At times the five years between them in ages seemed enormous.
Violet sighed. “I suppose it is unfair to expect you to never want anything new and fresh. ‘Tis part of growing up. Lily, remember when you hated wearing my old things?”
Lily only nodded her head. It was a common enough complaint for her. Her mother always had some piece of advice or idea on how to make something old new again. Since Mrs. Shapcote’s death, Mari had used this excuse several times to gain new items and Lily feared in danger of becoming thoroughly spoilt.
“I would walk with you to town,” said Violet, “but it is too muddy. I must look refined to the community or Mr. Norton will lose interest.”
“Lily, will you come? I know you always like to speak with Helen.”
“Do you forget she is the doctor’s daughter and not the milliner’s daughter?” Lily asked.
“Of course not! It is on the way.”
Lily narrowed her eyes at her silly younger sister. “And then you will be left alone at the milliner’s?”
“What?” Mari put on her best innocent look.
“Ask Father,” Violet offered.
Mari dashed away and came back triumphantly, just as Lily expected. “He said I could go if I am alone for only ten minutes.”
Lily raised a brow. “And ten minutes of time with my friend is supposed to be sufficient bribery?”
“It is better than nothing,” Violet said.
“I am not the one who is restricted to the house. I could go and spend as long as I like,” Lily said.
“Mama would have understood,” Mari muttered before crumpling to tears, which Lily suspected were put on.
“Then I will go,” Violet said while levelling an angry glare at Lily. “And it shall be your fault if Mr. Norton throws me over and I am an old maid forever.”
“I’ll go,” Lily said while rising to her feet. No one had even asked if she wanted to go into town today, after all, she had been stuck in a rainstorm just this morning, but putting aside their feelings for the other is what sisters did, wasn’t it?
Wetherham was a small town, just barely deserving the nomenclature and that only because there were so few towns in Northern Cumbria. Still, the residents were proud of their butcher, milliner, blacksmith and doctor. In recent years, to the delight of young ladies, a bookshop and circulating library had been added, while the tavern and sport remained of primary interest to the menfolk — of which there were not many and even less that were young and solvent. A short walk from the Shapcote residence, Lily and Mari reached their destination in a matter of minutes.
“I shan’t be longer than ten minutes! I swear!” Mari said when she left Lily at the door of Dr. Jamison’s. Mari’s solemn vow reinforced Lily’s belief that her sister had little intention of shopping. One could never promise to be so precise when looking for fripperies. She shrugged her shoulders, though. Nothing dangerous or exciting ever happened in their corner of the world. Mari could hardly meet disaster.
The Jamison housekeeper showed Lily to the sitting room, and she greeted her friend affectionately.
“It seems an age since I last saw you,” Helen Jamison said while scrutinizing Lily’s face.
“Forgive me. I have been desired quiet more than usual.”
“Understandable, of course. I only hope you are taking care of yourself. Father still worries.”
“I am entirely recovered,” Lily said. The references to her past illness always served as a reminder that her mother had not survived. She cleared her throat. “You must tell me about the ball last week.”
Although she had entered half mourning, Lily still preferred to avoid public gatherings. Violet had gone, but Lily had not the patience to hear her sister’s gushing over the attention paid to her. Helen was a far more sensible companion…even if that did not always suit Lily.
The tea things arrived just as Helen launched into a description of Mr. Norton’s puffy face turning red with the exertion of dancing.
“I can’t imagine what my sister sees in him!” Lily cried. What once would have made her laugh, only made her concerned for her sister.
“I daresay she sees a home of her own and two thousand a year.”
“You make her sound like a fortune hunter! If she were, would she settle for such a paltry sum?”
“Two thousand is quite a lot more than your father or mine earn,” Helen mused before sipping her tea.
“But Vi has never cared about such things before. Mari would be more likely to marry for money.”
“Perhaps recent events have changed Violet’s feelings.”
Lily made no reply. Not only had she caused her mother’s death, but now she was the reason for her sister desiring to marry the first sweaty, aging man who showed her any interest? A knock at the door interrupted her musings and looking out the window showed it was Mari.
“It is time for me to go. I fear if I stay longer Mari will invent some excuse to leave us. I’m exasperated at Papa as it is.”
“I am sorry my company was such a burden,” Helen said with a smirk.
“Oh! You know what I mean!”
“I do,” Helen nodded. “Still, I think it is good for you to get out more and talk with others. I know your sisters are given to ignore you. If I were stronger, I would visit you.”
“And have me give up my walk?” Lily feigned shock. “I thought you cared about my health!” By unspoken agreement, the two never mentioned Helen’s limp. Indeed, it was easy to forget about it entirely.
“Then you’ll promise to visit more? Like you used to?” Helen asked with no small amount of anxiety in her voice.
Unable to bear the thought of concerning her friend, Lily agreed. Even if she felt her visits were more for the sake of their past friendship than any current feeling. Helen had very few friends and was mostly homebound during the day when her father needed the gig. They no longer shared the secret yearnings of their heart, and their interests seemed too varied as Helen had long ago given up reading sentimental romances. While Lily was a loyal friend, she could not help the selfish wish of desiring a friend who might understand her a bit better. Seeing her sister waiting for her on the doorstep with glowing eyes and flushed cheeks made the feeling even stronger.
“What have you been up to?” Lily eyed Mari with suspicion as they walked toward their home.
“Nothing so bad.”
“Mari,” Lily warned.
“Alright,” she said and pulled two apples out of her reticule and handed one to Mari. “The reddest I could find!”
Lily looked at the shiny fruit in her palm. “These look like the ones Mr. Alistair grows, but I did not think he came to market on Fridays.”
“He doesn’t!” Mari grinned.
“Marigold June Shapcote! Do you mean that you went onto his land to retrieve them?”
Mari erupted into laughter. “And climbed a tree and beat James and John Fry to the top as well!”
She skipped off and left Lily rooted in place. Those boys were two or three years younger than Mari, and she was getting into scrapes with them as though she were a young girl still instead of blossoming into womanhood. Her figure was now curved and rounded in a feminine way. Could it be that Lily had one sister who was desperate for the carefree days of lost youth and another that was equally desperate to leave behind the cares of a troubled family? Where did Lily fit in the two extremes? For no matter the extremes, her sisters seemed capable of moving forward with their life, of embracing change while Lily remained firmly rooted in longing for the past.
The following morning dawned no different than the ones in the last several weeks. The sun hid behind clouds with only peeks of it coming out for a few brief moments at a time. Lily had enjoyed enough of William Wordsworth and the Lake Poets to consider it a metaphor for her life. Arriving in the breakfast room at her usual time, she chewed her toast while her sisters chatted around her.
“You’re wearing the blue ribbon again, Mari? I was going to ask to borrow it. Mr. Norton favours the colour and my last pair broke.”
“Well, it is my favourite.”
“What of the others you bought yesterday?”
“Yesterday?” The younger girl blinked, confused.
“When you went to the milliner with Lily.”
“Oh… Oh, I decided to not purchase anything. It is better to not make a hasty choice, isn’t it?”
“Hmmm. Yes, frugality is a virtue.”
Lily’s eyebrows raised at Violet’s words. Was she worried about income? Lily had not thought about it before, but Violet was likely now doing the family accounts.
“Was Lily angry?”
“For what?” Mari said nervously.
“For dragging her to town for no reason.”
“Oh, that. No, she did not seem to be.”
Lily stifled a sigh. When had her family begun to talk about her as though she was not in the room? Pushing back from the table without so much as excusing herself, she left. Uncertain if it might rain again, she changed into her sturdiest boots and bonnets. Seemingly prepared for the day, Lily set out for her usual morning location.
The frequent rains made the distance more cumbersome than usual, but she managed to trek up the hill to the old graveyard. As she approached her mother’s headstone, Lily again wondered how she had been so close to calamity and came out unscathed. She knew better than to tell her family or friends. They seemed to have little interest in what she had to say even more so if it sounded as outrageous as surviving a lightning strike.
After having sat silently and thoughtlessly for an hour two, Lily departed the cemetery as unnoticed as she came. Darker clouds were beginning to roll in and, determined to not be caught in another downpour, she exerted herself faster than usual. Suddenly she lost her footing and felt her body lurch forward. Flinging her arms out for balance, she had no protection when she careened head first and landed on a sharp rock. A split second after the severe pain and loud buzzing sound came nothing but blessed darkness and silence.